The Two of Clubs
Jacking It Up To Another Level
Jack Jones was part of the powerhouse set of three big name openings in all three major cabaret rooms this week. Not only did Jack Jones open this week at the Algonquin Hotel's Oak Room, so did Ashford & Simpson at Feinstein's at the Regency and Elaine Stritch at the Café Carlyle. Our review of Ashford & Simpson is below. Our reflections on Ms. Stritch will appear next week because her engagement runs into early November. Jack Jones and Ashford & Simpson will only be in town for two weeks.
Jack Jones is a full generation behind Tony Bennett, but the younger man, distinguished looking with a full head of silver hair, is a torch bearer for a kind of supper club singing that is a dying art. He was cabaret before there was cabaret. Last year he played the Oak Room at the Algonquin Hotel and put on a winning show that belied the decades he'd spent playing show rooms in Vegas, et al. Personable, warm, funny, and with a set of pipes that seemed ageless, he was a revelation. We were delighted to see that he was back again at the Oak Room this year. His new show is even more engaging than last year's sterling effort, and he continues to sound like a million bucks.
The show, as he describes it, follows the progression of boy meets girl, boys loses girl, boy gets girl back. In that sense it has a dramatic arc, but even he admits the through-line is weak. He jokes, however, that his story has a terrific score. He is so right. He sings songs like "Where is Love?" (Lionel Bart), "She Loves Me" (Bock & Harnick), "Stranger in Paradise (Wright/Forrest/Borodin), "It Amazes Me" (Leigh/Coleman), and so on until you begin to think that maybe you're in an alternate universe where only great songs exist. You will readily forgive his performance of "Wives and Lovers," a personal Jones pop chart hit, because he introduces this politically incorrect song so charmingly. Besides, if you have come to hear Jack Jones, you'd be disappointed if he didn't sing it.
In addition to his impeccable taste in music, an added treat is his rangy and powerful voice. He has exquisite vocal control when he sings with a quiet delicacy but his voice can also leap to high, hard notes with pitch-perfect precision. His arrangements are designed to show off his voice, but they are also designed with the lyric in mind so you never (well, almost never) feel as if he's simply proving that the old man can still make it happen.
For those of you old enough to have seen Jack Jones making guest appearances on TV variety shows, you might recall that he always had a great sense of humor. He still does. His patter is amusing but his adlibs are even funnier. Simply put, it's great to have Jack Jones singing in New York. He's a classy addition to the circuit.
Ashford & Simpson Know How to Put on a Show
Ashford & Simpson wrote the Motown hit record "Ain't Nothin' Like the Real Thing," and they are, without a doubt, the real thing in this, their New York cabaret debut at Feinstein's at the Regency. The famous songwriting/singing duo who wrote chart-toppers for the likes of Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross, Ray Charles, Whitney Houston and Chaka Kahn (among others), put on quite a show at the intimate nightclub on Park Avenue. The night we saw their act, Valerie Simpson joked that they usually perform one-night-only concerts in big halls. The concept of working almost every night from September 12 through September 23 in one nightclub was a concept that took them some getting used to. Clearly, they've taken to it rather well. The couple received two spontaneous standing ovations, the first at the end of their show, the second after their encore number (more on that encore, later).
Valerie Simpson has a solid conventional pop/R & B voice. She can rock and riff well enough to drive home their heavy back beat tunes. Nickolas Ashford is something else again; his voice is otherworldly and his stage presence is nothing short of mesmerizing, and that would be true even if his pants and shirt didn't sparkle. The point is, his voice sparkles brightest. His version of "I Put a Spell on You" (by Jay Hawkins and the only tune in the show Ashford & Simpson didn't write) is put over with impressive theatricality as he pretends to cast his magic on his wife, Valerie. Instead, he casts his spell on all of us.
Singing their hits, plus three songs intended for a musical theater piece they're writing, Ashford & Simpson provide an act that is a fan-pleasing, high-energy experience. Their songs are catchy pop and R & B numbers with a hook that repeats more often than a Seinfeld episode, but even more impressive than their hit records is their showmanship. As live artists, they know how to play the crowd. Consider that when they returned to the stage after their finale number, they asked their audience what they should sing for their encore. Amid the titles yelled out to them was "Gimme Something Real." They hemmed and hawed about it, noting it was from their first album and they weren't sure if they'd remember it. They joked about stalling while trying to recall the words. Valerie got a big laugh when she warned the audience, "Remember you loved us up to this point." Well, we were laughing twice as hard as the rest of the crowd because we had their song list. "Gimme Something Real" is their encore number! Now, that's showmanship!
Nat King Cole Deserves Better
Speaking of big names, Keith David, the Tony-nominated star of Jelly's Last Jam who is actually a much more active TV and movie actor, recently concluded a short run at the Metropolitan Room. The deep-voiced David's show was dedicated to Nat King Cole. Not that you'd know it if you cut out a handful of famous songs for which Nat was known. Mind you, Keith David can sound like Nat King Cole when he wants to, and he remarked any number of times that Nat was a personal inspiration, but we learn nothing about the iconic song stylist: no biographical history, no sense of the man's career or his impact on other African-American performers. Nothing. Now, that's okay if you find another way to express your appreciation for your subject. Certainly Billy Stritch did that with his Mel Torme show. But it seemed as if Nat King Cole merely provided a marketing concept for the act rather than providing its genuine inspiration.
Keith David clearly loves to sing and he has a rich, deep baritone that is as commanding as it is beautiful. A Nat King Cole show is a terrific idea for him, but he needs to connect to his subject far more fully in order to make this a satisfying act. His patter is clearly thrown together without much thought. Oh, he can get by on his personality and his voice – and some portion of the audience will be fine with that. But he has so much more to offer as a cabaret artist if he chooses to dig into and make it happen.
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