by Marilyn Lester
If Ella Fitzgerald had decided to reincarnate as a male she might well have become Nicolas King. Just 25, King already exhibits many of the musical assets that made great singers such as Fitzgerald icons of music. Bounding onto the Birdland stage, King launched into a samba-beat “Suddenly” (Bill Ocean), breezed into a genuine “Ella tune,” “Mr. Paganini” (Sam Coslow) with a tease of scat and an Ellington riff, and moved on to “New York State of Mind” (Billy Joel) in full-bore swing – before pausing to speak. At three songs in, the audience was his.
King owns the real estate of the stage. He’s been on one since age 4, enjoying a career on Broadway and in the world’s concert venues while still remaining completely unaffected. It’s apparent he loves the music and wants you to love it and be entertained by it just as much. He covers ground while he works, moving along the stage and connecting with the audience in way that’s relaxed and yet intensely focused at the same time. There’s humor too – poking fun at his youth with a combination of “I Won’t Grow Up” (Mark Charlap/Carolyn Leigh) and “I’ve Got No Strings (Leigh Harline/Ned Washington), excellent vehicles for King’s musicality and superb phrasing. With his first CD, Nineteen, released in 2010, King revealed his next one is coming up soon. A tantalizing taste of it was delivered with several numbers, including two of especial emotional intensity: “The Way She Makes Me Feel” (Michele Legrand/Alan and Marilyn Bergman) and a combination of “On Second Thought” (Eddie Rabbitt) and “Here’s That Rainy Day” (Jimmy Van Heusen/Johnny Burke). King couldn’t find the emotional center of the former, but began to nail the emotion in the latter. Maturity will no doubt bring greater emotional depth and vulnerability to his work – a layer of nuance and gravitas beyond the capacity he already has to be a wonderfully animated and polished entertainer.
A special treat of the set was a swinging no-holds barred duet with Marilyn Maye of “On the Street Where You Live” (Frederick Loewe/ Alan Jay Lerner) and an impromptu synergistic duet of Teach Me Tonight” (Gene De Paul/Sammy Cahn) with King’s grandmother and vocal coach, Angela Bacari. King is versatile, but what he excels at is serious, straight-ahead jazz. His “Sunday Morning” (Lou Reed/John Cale) was a mind-bending scatfest as was Duke Ellington’s (Irving Mills lyrics) “It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got that Swing.” King included a glorious Ellington medley, mastering the Maestro’s often difficult constructs with ease. He began and ended with “Sophisticated Lady” (Mitchel Parrish lyrics) and aced “In a Mellow Tone” (Milt Gabler lyrics), “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” (Bob Russell lyrics) and “I’ve Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good” (Paul Francis Webster lyrics). The Ellington Orchestra theme song, “Take the A Train” (Billy Strayhorn/Joya Sherrill) was a happy-making familiar addition to the medley. Turning 180 degrees around, King ended with the encore of “You Must Believe in Spring” (Michel Legrand/Jacques Demy/ Alan and Marilyn Bergman), a smooth ballad with piano accompaniment only.
Backing King were three of the most talented musicians on the planet: music director/pianist Tedd Firth, who was completely in the groove and swinging, as was Ray Marchica on drums. Rounding out rhythm was Alan Bernstein, who plays an incredibly resonant and vibrant double bass. When musicians are having a demonstrably good time, you know the act on stage is, as Duke Ellington would say, “beyond category.”
Photos: Maryann Lopinto
Nicolas King, January 15, 6 pm
Birdland, 315 West 44th Street, 212-581-3080, www.birdlandjazz.com