By Marilyn Lester . . .

It’s hard to believe singer Freda Payne’s show at Birdland on November 22 was her debut at this iconic jazz venue—an omission now happily corrected. In celebrating her new album release Let There Be Love and the publication of her memoir, Band of Gold, the diva showed just how it’s done—a master class for the young ‘uns. It was one of those shows we wished wouldn’t end. With charm, humor and a giant boatload of talent, Payne offered a full plate of song, covering a number of genres with absolute ease.

Payne was already a rising star before her big hit (and now signature song) “Band of Gold.” She grew up with jazz and began a career in her teens while attending the Detroit Institute of Musical Arts. “Band of Gold” was offered to Payne by the legendary songwriting team of Eddie Holland, Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier, with Ronald Dunbar, and became a gold-record hit in 1970. Of course, Payne sang the tune as her closing number, with the same vocal agility and force as her younger self. In her mature years, she shows no diminishment of tone and strength.

In the ensuing years since that big hit, the Grammy Award-nominated Payne has had a stunning career as a singer and as an actress in film and on the stage, appearing in such works as Jelly’s Last Jam, Sophisticated Ladies and Blues in the Night. Early on in her life as a vocalist, she sang with the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Her medley of “Duke’s Place” (aka “C Jam Blues”) with “Take the A Train” was a swinging tribute with superb solos by bassist Gregory Jones, taking a cue from the father of the modern bass (and Ellington discovery) Jimmie Blanton, and drummer, Buddy Williams. Ella Fitzgerald was an early influence, and having played Ella on stage, Payne offered an early Fitzgerald hit, Sam Coslow’s “(If You Can’t Sing It) You’ll Have to Swing It (Mr. Paganini),” with just the right touch of “Ella-ness” underpinning her own interpretation of the song. In a tribute to Nancy Wilson, with “Save Your Love for Me” (Buddy Johnson) she deftly aced this blues ballad.

From her stage training, Payne applied acting ability to a compelling delivery of “Fifty Percent” (Alan Bergman, Marilyn Bergman, Billy Goldenberg). Often, jazz and swing tunes are more about storytelling via vocal technique, rhythm and phrasing than lyric interpretation. Payne not only has the ability to get to the heart of a lyric in Broadway works, ballads and songbook standards, such as “The Very Thought of You” (Ray Noble), but has a finely honed ability to sing and speak through all music with emotion. Because she has plenty of “soul,” she successfully interprets the blues, such as W.C. Handy’s gold-standard “St. Louis Blues” as well as her updated R&B presentation of “Muddy Water” (Jo Trent, Peter DeRose, Harry Richman).

Speaking of how it’s done, at the piano was legendary music director, Frank Owens, also an arranger and composer, whose stellar career spans decades of cross-genre excellence. Owens, like many classically trained pianists, brings something extra to the 88s, including an ability to make deep dives into rhythm and harmonics, adding creative ideas as he goes. His credits and resumé are astounding, but the proof of the pudding is in the playing, and so his accompaniment for Payne was itself a master class of virtuosic piano artistry.

Photos: Kevin Alvey