By Don Heckman
There was a party mood in the air at Catalina Bar & Grill Wednesday night. And with good reason. An enthusiastic, full house crowd had turned out to celebrate what would have been Billie Holiday’s 97th birthday. In fact, it was a few weeks beyond the actual birthdate of April 7. But no matter. The memory, the music and the spirit were all in the right place in a program of songs closely associated with Lady Day.
The architect and the centerpiece of this evening of stirring jazz nostalgia was pianist/singer Corky Hale, who – when she was in her ‘20s — was Holiday’s accompanist. Joining her in the front line – the always-appealing sight and sounds of Freda Payne and the energetic singing of the fast-emerging young Tricia Tahara.
Finding fresh ways to approach anything from the Great American Songbook can be a challenge. And when the songs have had a close association with an iconic performer such as Billie Holiday, the challenge is even more daunting. But to the credit of Payne and Tahara – with Hale’s accompaniment — they wisely steered clear of any effort to simulate the memorable Holiday sound and phrasing.
Payne’s take on “Lover Man” captured the poignancy of the song, while retaining the intimate musicality that has always been an essential part of her style.
Tahara’s interpretations were broader, filled with an occasional overflowing of gospel-tinged phrasing.
Singing “The Very Thought of You” and “God Bless the Child,” Tahara was at her best when the expressive warmth of her voice came through, and she opened up the space for the lyrics to tell their stories.
Hale, fully in charge of the evening, was a witty, humorous master of ceremonies. And her piano accompaniment, as always, was rich with lush, chordal harmonies and surging rhythms. She was solidly aided by the support of John Chiodini’s sterling guitar work, the dependable bass playing of Jim DeJulio and the sturdy drumming of Jim DeJulio, Jr.
The evening closed with a buoyant, all-join-in rendering of the lyrically modified, “We’re Gonna Love You Come Rain or Come Shine.” Hale joined Payne and Tahara in the vocals, with Jeff Lass filling in at the piano for an upbeat climax. It was a perfect way to blow out the candles and wish one more happy birthday to the incomparable Lady Day.