Darius de Haas's show at Birdland came on the cusp of Birdland's new season of shows. When I asked Jim Caruso, who produces the Monday night events there, about what's coming up, he offered, "With the announcement of every Broadway series I've presented at Birdland, I've said the exact same thing: I can't believe I get to put on a show with these people! At heart, I'm a fan." In his usual mix of enthusiasm, professionalism and wry humor, Jim added, "I promised myself that I would only book performers whom I absolutely loved, so the series would reflect my taste. That's not to say that my taste is the best taste, but it's the only taste I have, so I'm sticking to it. It's a joy when it coincides with others', and almost every concert has sold out. Luckily, I'm not a fan of Latvian folk songs or the dreaded autoharp. The season is very ... varied."
"Varied" is a word that can be used to describe just the material in Darius de Haas's satisfying set, which included jazz, soul and pop songs. There were high-energy, funky turns and serious moments such as "It Is Still Dark," part of a song cycle with the poetry of Celso Gonzalez-Falla set to music by Louis Rosen. Host Caruso introduced the singer as "the amazing Darius de Haas," who used the same adjective to characterize Bruce Barth, who was on piano, and Stevie Wonder, whose songs he featured. Darius has been performing Wonder's repertoire in concert recently and his soaring, energetic melodies are a good match for the vocalist's wide-ranging voice and fearless style. (He wisely saved the best and most emotional of these for last: "If It's Magic" was the very effective encore, allowing Darius's pure, angelic tones and sensitive interpretation of the tender lyric to be the last impression of the show.)
Some of his genre-spanning interests and influences come from growing up in a musical family. In addition to those in his own generation, Darius mentioned his father, jazz bassist Eddie de Haas (whose resume includes a gig at the original Birdland) and his mother, a singer. She and her sister sang (as The Bey Sisters) with his uncle, singer-pianist Andy Bey, in the 1950s and '60s. "Maybe that's why I'm so eclectic," he commented. "Don't blame me!" Andy Bey piped up, with a laugh, from the crowd. Darius gave special attention to Billy Strayhorn, whose songwriting he saluted in his rewarding solo album and past concerts. His presentation of the CD's title song, "Daydream," was vocally and dramatically thrilling, all the more so because of its uncluttered arrangement. The three-piece band got its fullest workout in an all-stops out jam on Kenny Rankin's "In the Name of Love," as percussionist Steve Kroon and guitarist Kenny Brescia stretched out, as did top-drawer pianist Barth while Darius not only wailed but did some dance steps, all to a roaring approval from the audience.
As an extra added attraction, Darius had a star as his guest. Midway through the act, Vanessa Williams joined him on stage. He spoke warmly of their past musical associations, and she added, "Shall we tell them how we met?" (pause) "We were in jail together." And then they smiled and clarified things: they were both on Broadway in The Kiss of the Spider Woman. After a few other anecdotes, they rapturously duetted on the pop ballad, "(With You) I'm Born Again." This highlight and its reception made for a tough act to follow, so the still-beaming Darius took a deep breath and said, "I'm so happy I feel the need to sing in Portuguese." And he eased into one of the Jobim songs from Black Orpheus, a film he dubbed as "amazing," using once again using what seemed to be the adjective of the night. It's one that really does fit this singer, his wide range of vocal colors and his power - not just the physical power of his voice as an instrument, but his ability to use it to move an audience.
One big part of his background that was not represented was musical theater repertoire. He did not dip into songs he's done on stage or on theater recordings, but will get to that again on his next stop, a concert in which he's a participant tomorrow, Thursday, February 2 at Symphony Space: "Broadway And Beyond."
Meanwhile, back at Birdland, Jim Caruso is busy hosting and performing at the Monday night Cast Party drop-in shows where the open mic always attracts theater performers and singers of all kinds. Like the Broadway Series that precedes it at 7 pm, it's quite the potpourri. As Jim sees the star turns following Darius in the Broadway Series, "I love that Jim Brickman's emotional piano artistry will be heard on the same stage as Steven Brinberg's hilarious Streisand impression. Brilliant songwriters like Marcy Heisler & Zina Goldrich, Victoria Shaw, Dick Scanlan and the late Jule Styne hold a special place in my heart, because good writing is like magic to me."
Thinking about others set for the season, he added, "I've watched David Ippolito mesmerize thousands of New Yorkers with his music in Central Park for years. Euan Morton absolutely kills me as a singer and as an actor. And you gotta have some great Broadway girls, and Andrea McArdle, Penny Fuller, Christine Pedi and Linda Lavin are some of the all-time best in the biz. Birdland has given me the awesome opportunity to create a new venue for these theatrical happenings. In turn, people who would not have necessarily gone into a 'jazz club' are seeing and hearing the best piano (a 9-foot Bosendorfer concert grand!), the best sound, and eating great food served by the most attractive staff on the planet. To quote the afore-mentioned Mr. Brinberg, we're 'the luckiest people in the world! "
One concert Jim is especially looking forward to on February 13 is one I was impressed with last year when I took it in at The Zipper Theatre. It's the songs of Jeff Blumenkrantz, who has worked with various collaborators, resulting in some songs that are wickedly funny and others that are deeply moving, such as "I Won't Mind." As in last year's concert, Jeff will sing and play some of his own work and be joined by Rebecca Luker and others. Coincidentally, Rebecca is on the bill with Darius on February 2. Small world, big talent.
For the full schedule of events at Birdland, 315 West 44 St., visit their website www.birdlandjazz.com.
More information on Darius at his site, www.dariusdehaas.com.