Michael Feinstein: The Great Jazz Standards

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by Marilyn Lester

 

Michael Feinstein entered the sixth season of the Jazz & Popular Song series with the “little acknowledged fact” that jazz and popular music share a “symbiotic relationship.” “It’s a matter of how you interpret a song,” said Feinstein. Perhaps that’s what the great bandleader and composer Duke Ellington meant when he insisted his oeuvre wasn’t jazz, but American music. It’s a point vividly illustrated by Feinstein and his guest artists with their various takes on the American songbook standards.

 

With seasoned melodic skills and well-honed interpretive ability, Feinstein dramatically opened the evening with an intermix of “The Sweetest Sounds” and “I Hear Music.” It’s always a pleasure to hear Feinstein talk about the history of the songs he sings, so it was fascinating to learn how “Long Ago and Far Away” had lyricist Ira Gershwin twisting with indecision. Feinstein sang the glorious final version of the song and one of the five rejected versions. As the penultimate number of the evening, Feinstein re-claimed the microphone—so graciously given over to his four guests—for a mournful version of “Body and Soul.”

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There is a performer working today who can truly be labeled legendary: 88-years-young Marilyn Maye, whose style is adaptable and whose vocal chords have frozen in time. She’s completely at one with her craft, easily swinging with “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter,” “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and “Honeysuckle Rose.” Maye and Feinstein shared a delightful hand-in-glove jazz-waltz version of “It’s a Most Unusual Day.” Pop diva turned jazz singer, Freda Payne scatted the daylights out of a very jazzy, animated “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To,” transitioning into ballad mode for “The Very Thought of You.”

 

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Feinstein’s two young guest artists are both finalists in the 2015 Thelonious Monk Institute International Jazz Vocals Competition. Vuyolwethu Sotashe, from South Africa, has a mellow, if studied, vocal demeanor. His “Too Close for Comfort” was a swinging Jamie Cullum-style interpretation; while “Stardust” was preceded by a Feinstein-like tidbit that the tune actually began as an up-tempo dance piece. Veronica Swift is a clear-voiced soprano who has been performing since childhood. She scatted and swung a mean version of “September in the Rain” and performed a sweet duet with Feinstein on “All the Things You Are.” Both young performers show excellent potential. With maturity and experience great performances may be expected of them.

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Music director Tedd Firth energetically manned the piano for the entirety of the evening, demonstrating why he’s one of the best in the business. He was backed by a splendid 16-piece jazz orchestra of top-notch players. Standouts were Pete Smith on guitar, Warren Vache on cornet, and Art Baron on trombone. The cast and band got a chance to collectively swing and shine with a superb up-tempo, foot-tapping finale of “It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing.”

 

Michael Feinstein: The Great Jazz Standards took place Wednesday, April 13 at 7 pm at Jazz at Lincoln Center (Broadway at 60 Street). 212-721-6500, www.jazz.org

 

Photos by Magda Katz

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