By Marilyn Lester
The years have been very good to Freda Payne since her breakout hit, Band of Gold, in 1970. She’s not only been a celebrated presence on the music scene but has added a plethora of acting credits in film and on stage to her résumé.
At The Iridium (December 27-29), the California-based diva was backed by Music Director Bill Cunliffe on piano, Lisle Atkinson on bass and Tim Horner on drums. The trio demonstrated their considerable playing chops with their opening instrumental, Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields’ classic, The Way You Look Tonight.
Enter diva Payne, youthfully shimmering in a gold lamé gown, confidently launching into the Cole Porter standard, You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To. Her delivery confirmed that her voice remains strong and clear, and that the girl can certainly scat something fierce.
With energy up for nearly two hours, the rest of Payne’s performance unfolded with a carefully crafted balance of music covering several genres. When Payne hit New York in the 1960s she came as a jazz-oriented artist, working with the likes of Quincy Jones, Pearl Bailey and Lionel Hampton, among many others. Her early training and experience has served her well over the decades. With a few other standards included in the show, such as the Styne/Cahn classic, Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out to Dry, her versatility was welcome and apparent.
Payne’s performance also included several tunes which will appear on her upcoming March 2014 CD (her 18th album release) on the Mack Avenue label. First among these was the late Kenny Rankin’s Haven’t We Met. With the Bergman’s The Island, Payne proved she knows how to make a well-covered song her own; and with Gretchen Valade’s I Should Have Told Him she demonstrated she’s up to the challenge of presenting lesser known tunes outside well-represented songbooks.
In 2004, Payne debuted her stage tribute to Ella Fitzgerald at New Jersey’s Crossroads Theater. Ella Fitzgerald: First Lady of Song was directed by Dancer/Choreographer Maurice Hines (the duo are about to reprise the show at Alexandria, Virginia’s Metro Stage). Payne has also incorporated tributes to Ella in her musical outings, and such was the case during the mid-point of the Iridium gig. Payne’s own style of singing is, like Ella’s, direct and authentic. While Fitzgerald and Payne may be stylistic soul mates, Payne is not an Ella imitator; rather she demonstrates the same capacity for superb phrasing and a commanding vocal range.
Payne began the tribute with Fitzgerald’s 1938 hit, Mr. Paganini (Sam Coslow), followed by a swinging Sweet Georgia Brown (Bernie/Pinkard/Casey), a tune favored by Ella and recorded by her many times. Of course, any Fitzgerald tribute has to include, as Payne declared, “the great Duke Ellington.” Her selection was one that allowed her trio to take generous improvisational solo turns. “For the musicians out there,” she said, “you know this as C-Jam Blues.” With lyrics added by Bill Katts, Bob Thiele and Ruth Roberts, the tune transforms any venue into Duke’s Place. Payne’s tribute to Ella ended with a number Fitzgerald famously sang for the first time live in Berlin in 1959, which went on to become one of her biggest hits: Mack the Knife. This rendition brought home Payne’s excellent ability to enunciate through this swinging version of the complex Brecht-Weill standard.
The blues genre was represented by two tunes recorded by alto sax man Cannonball Adderly: Save Your Love For Me (Buddy Johnson, with original vocal by Nancy Wilson) and I’d Rather Drink Muddy Water (Austin Powell/Grant Jones), made famous by Lou Rawls. With How Sweet It Is To Be Loved By You (Motown’s Holland–Dozier–Holland), the Detroit-bred Payne edged into the pop genre. Inevitably, her finale number was a rocking, roof-raising Band of Gold (Holland–Dozier–Holland as Edythe Wayne and Ron Dunbar), her first gold record, delivered with no stint of energy or enthusiasm.
Encore numbers have become a given over the years, but Payne’s fans were taking no chances; after a generous round of applause for Band of Gold, they made their desire for one more number audibly clear. Payne returned to oblige. “This is a slow number,” she said, smiling. “I’m not 25 any more,” closing with a soulful rendition of Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most (Landesman/Wolf). Freda Payne’s talent and generosity as a performer was well-rewarded by a standing ovation and extended applause.
Freda Payne at The Iridium, 1650 Broadway (at 50th Street), New York, NY 10019,