A Great 21st Century Jazz Singer Honors Immortal 20th Century Songbirds and the Songs They Made Famous
by: Myra Chanin
Actress/Jazz Singer Linda Purl certainly put her Best Self Forward during her elegant debut at Feinstein’s/54Below in a show called Big Band Romance, which honored female jazz singers who got their musical starts as generic vocalists with big name swing bands before becoming stars in their own right. Many are still easily recalled by their first names only – like Billie, Ella, Peggy and Rosemary. Only Helen Merrill, whom musical biographer James Gavin called legendary but underrated, and Anita O’Day required surnames for recognition. Merrill’s still alive and kicking at 87 and considering a sayonara appearance in Japan where she lived and performed for many years. Linda Purl spent many years in Tokyo as the daughter of a foreign correspondent and this may be why she’s familiar with Merrill’s work. All of the above achieved greatness after WWII when the Hit Parade was packed with songs with equally significant words and music — imaginative refrains with meaning and feeling and memorable rhythmic tunes to which dancers could swing and sway. Two hearts beating in three quarter time? Sometimes, but more likely a pair of high-heeled shoes trying to follow the moves set by male partners who were more often than not “impossible to follow.” Still, it was a romantic time when mere nearness was exciting and kisses counted. I don’t ever remember hearing anyone use the phrase having sex. We called it making love. Hooking up was a term used by hi-rise window washers or by women’s longline brassiere and cast-iron corset designers.
Getting back to the present, Linda Purl’s debut at Feinstein’s/54Below was highlighted by her beautiful, graceful, yet subtly sexy presence which renewed and revitalized Twentieth Century romance in spades. In her black off-the-shoulder sort of Bette Davis in All About Eve strappy-shouldered dress, I thought she looked like a contemporary, thinner, far less smarmy version of Marilyn Monroe as Marilyn might have chosen to look to impress today’s feminist filled audiences.
Purl’s smart, polished, nuanced, and very contemporary delivery of time-tested songs in her good, solid voice, was sung to charts arranged and conducted by her as-close-to-perfection-as-it-gets pianist/musical director Tedd Firth. Her diction was clear. Her phrasing was personal. She never imitated or tried to copy anyone else’s delivery. Tedd Firth’s arrangements were all in her key and created no stress for her vocal chords.
She and Tedd shared the stage with the powerful, internationally acclaimed, mostly brass Diva Jazz Orchestra, whose 15 female, extraordinary, mostly brass instrumentalists (sax, trombone, trumpet) had been organized and were usually led by drummer Sherrie Maricle, who holds a Doctorate from NYU in Philosophy of Jazz Performance and Composition! They also honored the past by their own hot, present day musical stylings. Lead tenor sax player Janelle Reichman deserves special mention for her restrained but still plenty hot and sensuous tenor sax solos.
Purl’s song list showed exquisite taste and was wonderful from its start, “Steve Allen’s This Could be the Start of Something Big” to its finish, Peggy Lee’s “I Love Being Here with You.” And in between she recalled Billie Holiday on “Them There Eyes,” Anita O’Day with Jerome Kern’s “Pick Yourself Up,” Ella Fitzgerald’s renderings of Great American Songbook “S’Wonderful” and “It’s Alright With Me,” and last but not least, Helen Merrill for “The Nearness of You.” In addition, she recalled the great men band singers when Broadway’s Tom Wopat blended his solid voice with hers in a duet. Everything about her performance was a treat.
Where and when can you see and hear her sing in New York. Two more appearances for her here are currently scheduled. Next, on October 10, she’ll be celebrating Rosemary Clooney, Barbara Cook and Julie Wilson at Jazz at Lincoln Center. And if you haven’t quite decided what to get yourself for Christmas, Linda Purl, Tom Wopat and Musical Director Tedd Firth will be home for the Holidays with a warm and witty toe-tapping show of standards called “An Evening of the Seasons Joy in Jazz” at Birdland on December 10th at 7 pm.
Photos/Video: Magda Katz