By Marilyn Lester . . .
Lillias White, noting that the legendary vocalist, Sarah Vaughan, was called either The Divine One or Sassy, decided along the way to meld those appellations into one: Divine Sassy. Well, it turns out that White is herself both divine and sassy. Her tribute show, Divine Sass, A Tribute to The Divine One—Sarah Vaughan at Feinstein’s/54 Below, was a fiesta of jazz and blues, covering prime Vaughan material.
The hard-working White is not only a Tony winner for The Life, but has a slew of other awards to her credit—a testament to her long and varied career on the stage and in film and television. She’s not only bringing decades of experience to the stage for this show, but a lifelong love for Vaughan as well. Growing up in Brooklyn, White was struck by the diva’s range and musical ear (skills that she herself possesses). She’s said of Vaughn that she “she just got on stage and hit it.” And that’s exactly what White did from her opener to her closing numbers, giving 1,000 percent in a high-energy performance.
An extended scat opening to “The Man I Love” (George and Ira Gershwin), in a swing arrangement, mirrored Vaughan’s style from the 1975 Live at the Laren Jazz Festival recording. When Sassy began singing the tune in the 1940s, she interpreted it as a blues. In this jazz version, White’s scat was impeccable as was her phrasing. Phrasing also took center stage with “In a Sentimental Mood” (Duke Ellington, Manny Kurtz), a much-recorded jazz standard and blues ballad. Its chromatic countermelody gives it the haunting feeling beautifully interpreted by White and captured in a bass solo by Jonathan Michel.
Another giant of the jazz world, Dizzy Gillespie, was represented by his classic “A Night in Tunisia,” written around 1942 at the birth of Bebop. As an instrumental, the piece with its somewhat syncopated Afro-Caribbean rhythms—melodic but harmonically complex—is played with uptempo verve. Lyrics by Raymond Leveen were added in 1944 and the version recorded by Vaughan slowed the tempo to a moody blues. White’s interpretation in this style perfectly captured the exotic mood of the song. On the other end of the tempo spectrum, her “Shulie a Bop,” written by Vaughan and her then husband, trumpeter George Treadwell in 1957, was a fast bop with band members taking spotlight solos, including ace drummer Buddy Williams.
A treat among treats was the closer, the ballad, “Anytime,” written by Vaughan and never completed—until now when Alan Bergman wrote lyrics just for White. But wait, there’s more. So demanding was the audience that an encore to the encore arrived in a swinging “Someone to Watch Over Me” (George and Ira Gershwin). This rousing conclusion put the stamp on a show in which the earthy, brash and entirely sweet and charming White had every audience member wrapped around her little finger. Co-written with Roz Nixon and directed by Will Nunziata, Divine Sass, A Tribute to The Divine One was a triumph.
A huge part of the show’s success was White’s music director, pianist-arranger Mathis Picard, whose multicultural French-Malagasy roots inform his rich, lyrical and technically advanced playing style. He’s also an intensely empathic accompanist, with a keen ear tuned to White’s delivery and style.
Lillias White performed at 54 Below May 26 thru 28.
Photos by Marilyn Lester