By Brian Scott Lipton
Over her past 39 shows at Birdland, Natalie Douglas has faced her fair share of challenges, including entire shows dedicated to such legendary vocalists as Nina Simone and Dolly Parton. But in presenting her newest show, Human Heart, on Monday, March 21, Douglas, almost unknowingly, gave herself her largest hurdle to overcome – singing all 12 selections from her new CD, “Human Heart.” That she did so brilliantly was no surprise. As Douglas has proved for two decades, there is nothing she can’t sing – and whatever she performs, she does with great feeling in addition to blow-you-away-vocals.
Human Heart consists of some of Douglas’ favorite tunes – many political, some sentimental, some gimlet-eyed – spanning decades of the finest songwriting. It ranges from uptempo gems like Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh’s beloved “The Best Is Yet to Come” to gorgeous showtunes such as Robert Waldman’s “Sleepy Man” (from The Robber Bridegroom), Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson’s “It Never Was You” (from Knickerbocker Holiday), Jerome Kern and Oscar Hamerstein II’s “Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man” (from Show Boat), and Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty’s “The Human Heart” (from Once on This Island).
As magnificently as Douglas performed all these songs, to call each of them highlights of Monday’s show is only to tell part of the story. Her renditions of two Billie Holiday classics, “I Must Have That Man” and the still-searing “Strange Fruit,” were absolutely stunning in their conviction, as were her inspired takes on Nina Simone’s anger-filled “Mississippi Goddamn” and Abbey Lincoln’s gorgeously philosophical “Throw It Away.”
Still, if I had to play favorites, I would vote for two songs. The first was her “bonus track” (aka encore), a truly incredible version of Joni Mitchell’s classic anthem “Woodstock,” with the first verses sung in Mitchell’s trademark poetic style, and the remainder of the song given the more rock treatment that mimic its well-known cover version by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. I was thrilled to find out it will be on Douglas’ next CD, which she hopes to have out within a year.
And then there is what I’ve long considered Douglas’ greatest triumph: her peerless interpretation of Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Mr. Bojangles.” Arranged by the great Mark Hartman in a much slower style than the ones used by either Nina Simone or Sammy Davis Jr., the song’s best-known interpreters, it becomes in Douglas’ hands the ultimate “story song,” elucidating clearly the sad-yet-hopeful tale of a drunkard in a New Orleans jail who still gets pleasure from his ability to dance. If you’re not smiling through tears (or maybe crying through a grin) as Douglas sings the last word (“dance”), well, maybe you don’t have a human heart.