by Rob Lester
by Rob Lester
"Bobby Short was my mentor," announces singer Jane Scheckter, smiling. "Of course, he didn't know it." Jane begins her satisfying salute at Danny's Skylight Room (continuing on the next four Mondays: April 3, 10, 17 and 24, at 7 p.m.) talking about how she first heard the sophisticated sounds of the music icon on a jazz radio radio station while struggling through her homework at the age of 12, and was instantly captivated. The adolescent chanteuse-in-training collected Short's records and aimed for the soignée and swank he personified. As an adult, she made annual visits to the pricey Cafe Carlyle to hear her idol, in love with the way he respected and relished good songs. They finally met, and she did a tribute show to him a decade ago, which he attended and approved. (Mr. Short passed away a year ago this month.) Jane has a natural warmth and accessibility that envelop the material, allowing her to easily avoid the trap of making this too much of a "high society" musical ambience. She gets the feel of champagne without the sham. And she's bubbly, too, with the Gershwins' "I've Got Beginner's Luck" and a heavy dose of Cole Porter songs. As I've known from previous in-person encounters and her fine recordings, she can be a good friend to a song.
Don't worry about any self-conscious or obvious emulating of the Short stylizings. Jane is not mimicking his sound, and the later-in-life Short rasp is not in her grasp, as her tone and sound are bright and more brassy than sassy. However, the flavor comes from the respectful attitude toward the songs as written and a decision to use many of Bobby Short's basic arrangements and attitude. She mixes these arrangements with treatments created for her by Mike Renzi, Jeff Harris and the man at the keyboard, her usual musical director, the always splendid Tedd Firth. Chip Jackson on bass and Peter Grant on drums make a musically rich evening. Tedd took a great solo one of the five Cole Porter selections, "It's Bad or Me"; I only wish a few arrangements allowed for longer and more solos. But perhaps this isn't the right show for that. Suffice to say this trio is on the money and you get your money's worth: they're clearly in celebratory mode, too.
Ebullient and joyful, Jane does not hold back. She's singing in full voice, with some juicy belting notes and big endings. And, unlike some singers, she knows what to do with her arms! With judiciously chosen gestures throughout and triumphantly raised arms at a song's conclusion, she is loose and jubilant. Jane has fun with "This Is What I Call Love," a rarely heard selection that wouldn't be on another tributer's Short list. (Part of the delight in collecting Bobby Short records for many of us was always the chance to hear seldom done theater tunes like this one from the Happy Hunting which is also being taken out of mothballs by The York Theatre this year.)
Jane said she gleaned from her avid listening to Bobby Short that he had four priorities and lessons. First, look for great obscure songs by the great writers. Secondly, pay attention to the lyrics. Third, she noticed he avoided the tragic "poor me" lament unless it had irony or something else besides self-pity. Lastly, he prized the introductory verses to songs that are dropped by many singers who cut to the chase. She said she learned that these verses can be "like an appetizer to the main course" and her careful and fond treatments of verses is a major plus all night. This student has done her homework and learned her lessons well. It all shows.
I didn't expect to find a convenient segue leading into my review of Yvonne Constant's show except to say that I caught her opening at Danny's Skylight Room the very next night, March 28, or to say both singers wore sequins. They're quite different personalities. But early in her set, the French entertainer stops during the introductory verse of Cole Porter's "Night and Day" ("... the drip, drip, drip of the raindrops ...") to playfully curse cabaret master Bobby Short for his established directive to include those intros. "God knows I loved Bobby Short. I loved his energy and enthusiasm, but these lyrics irritate me." Offering a piece of paper from the piano, musical director, Russ Kassoff pipes up, "Yvonne, I have a surprise for you." In this bit of staged "business," she acts as if she'd never before seen the French translation and proceeds to sing a few lines. Then, she stops again and declares, "Now I am irritated in two languages." But in her night club act, she is charming - in two languages.
Her theme is La Chanson Realiste, the music popularized in France between the World Wars, but she does take one detour from the musicalized history lesson to flash forward to the 1960s (no, not to her own time on the boards in La Plume de ma tante, No Strings, The Gay Life). It is to embody the title song from Irma La Douce. It turns out to be one of the the highlights of the whole evening, like a miniature three-act play, wonderfully dramatic and building beautifully. With this number, Yvonne uses her whole body, stalking across the stage and incorporating full gestures as she tells the story that goes from bitter loneliness to exultation upon the hope of love's return. Of course, l'amour is the main subject at hand. Although she sings the majority of the material in French, the still-glamorous lady generously serves as guide/translator. Sometimes this comes in the form of switching to English for a chorus, but more often a concise aside as a summary or commentary (sometimes flip, sometimes just helpful).
Certainly a familiarity with the material makes for a fuller appreciation. I was glad I understand some French and know many of the songs, as there are some that would be known to most with a passing familiarity (the Josephine Baker specialty, "J'ai deux amours," and the well-worn torch song "My Man" and "Parlez-moi d'amour").
Yvonne is casual, despite the heavy nature of some of the material; she does not go in for big endings and flourishes, and a "well, that's that!" attitude comes through as she seems to dispense with one number and is eager to move right along. Edith Piaf signature numbers are dynamic and exciting, and seem to inspire a more fully involved performance rather than an amiable but laidback approach. Her "Milord" and "Non, je ne regrette rien" are quite thrilling in her strong throaty, dynamic renditions. Some of the other material as essayed does not call on her theatricality, but I did find myself wrapped up in the era as she talked about icons and the sensibilities of the times.
Yvonne is fortunate in having the services of Russ Kassoff as her (sole) musician, who several years ago conducted for French legend Charles Aznavour. The pianist-arranger, more commonly seen in a jazz setting, adds much flavor and support in this more straightforward, nostalgic style. I'd caught him just a few days earlier nimbly matching Debbie Gravitte's Broadway-style bravura, too, and I'm eager to hear his imminent release, a belated first solo CD. He told me, "Yvonne is very interesting and much fun to work with. It's a pleasure to explore this not often performed canon of songs with her." He added, "Regardless of whether or not you speak French, she gets you to understand the stories that she weaves." I think you'll agree. Perhaps not for every taste, but after hearing many well-meaning All-American singers trying to take on this kind of material, I must say you can't beat the genuine article, with the entrenched history and understanding, authentic accent and flair.
Yvonne Constant's remaining nights at Danny's are: Thursday, March 30 (7 p.m.); Monday, April 3 (9:15 p.m.); Wednesday, April 5 (7 p.m.). Jane Scheckter continues each Mondays at 7 p.m. throughout April. Danny's is at 346 West 46th Street. Reservations and information: 212-265-8133. Website: www.dannysgrandseapalace.com