By Martha Wade Steketee
“I finally made it to Birdland!” Melissa Manchester, who has had a career of many decades, with more than a score of albums, and performances around the world, exclaimed early into her set in the intimate jazz venue an excitement at being in the room that almost matches the electric anticipation of her audience members.
Selections this evening were a trip down Memory Lane from her own career set list (e.g. “Midnight Blue” and “Come in from the Rain”) and from her most recent recording The Fellas honoring some of the great popular male recording artists of the mid-twentieth century, from Mathis to Sinatra to Cole to Tormé. The end result as a concert in the small Birdland venue is often joyous, sometimes muted, and too often, as a live performance, distanced through the use of recorded orchestral tracks, like looking at action on a stage through a scrim.
The event was part record release party with extras, part memory-lane tribute concert crafted for a venue many times the size of the intimate Birdland (complete with videos and the already mentioned pre-recorded instrument tracks), and part an attempt to celebrate the excellent student musicians in Citrus College Blue Note Orchestra who created the big band big sound of the recording orchestra on The Fellas.
Manchester and the musicians with her on stage — including John McDaniel on piano and keyboard and an occasional harmonic vocal line, manager and collaborator Susan Holder, and several other horn players who aren’t clearly identified — swung between big brassy arrangements that underscore the horns on stage and quiet piano-accompanied sequences when the lights dimmed and we focused on Manchester, her music, and our own memories. McDaniel held down the grand piano when Manchester wasn’t accompanying herself, and hopped over to a keyboard when the piano was occupied. Overall the instrumental lines were part live, part recorded, and part video duets.
There were challenges to this event as a live performance experience. We wanted to hear her voice not the enhanced recordings from another distant event. One number with added instrumental tracks to illustrate the impact of the huge student horn section would be sufficient. Perhaps the first tune on the recording and the first of the evening “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head” (Van Heusen and Cahn) could be that one single number. It’s a big brassy Vegas welcome to a recording and to a performance. In the venue, we’re jazzed, our attention is riveted, and we are ready to listen to her and the fine musicians with her on stage. Some of this attention is squandered in the live venue — additional “enhanced” tracks are used on several additional numbers. The audience became numb to the effect and a bit distanced from the performance. I know I began looking around for the hidden violins.
“Chances Are” (Allen and Stillman) honors Johnny Mathis with the big augmented orchestration with a bossa nova beat, that all embraced and enhanced Manchester’s sweet vibrato. I looked forward to “They Say It’s Wonderful” (Irving Berlin), the sweet conversational ballad from Annie Get Your Gun, but the augmented orchestral tracks overwhelmed the performance a bit and I missed the sweet verse that wasn’t performed.
There were many moments that illustrated the magic of cabaret by incorporating personal stories and spare arrangements. One sweet sequence focused on Manchester’s good friend Marvin Hamlisch. After performing the tune “Through the Eyes of Love” from the film Ice Castles (Hamlisch and Bayer Sager), Manchester relayed Hamlisch’s description of the experience of the more than 20 curtain calls on the opening night of A Chorus Line: “It was like a thousand Christmases.” We in the audience sighed as one.
Whenever Manchester took over the main piano from McDaniel, we knew one of her old hits was coming. “Midnight Blue” and “Come in From the Rain” and “Whenever I Call You Friend” (written and originally performed with Kenny Loggins, performed with McDaniel this evening). “Don’t Cry Out Loud” performed toward the end of the evening, was perhaps the simplest in structure and most resonant in effect. Manchester stood almost motionless at the microphone, with an arrangement so spare she could have been singing a cappella, and emotions flowed freely through the house.
The new recording is a winner. Most of this evening’s impact is lasting, and Manchester’s charm is lasting. She ended the evening with advice she gives her students at Citrus College, the school she loves. A life in the arts, the life she loves, is full of “unexpected joy” if you have hunger in your heart.
Melissa Manchester “The Fellas” took place Monday, September 11 at 7pm at Birdland (315 West 44th Street). www.birdlandjazz.com