By Don Heckman
There was a celebratory mood in the air at Vitello’s Saturday night. And with good reason. Cheryl Bentyne – one of the four vocal stars in the Manhattan Transfer constellation – was returning to action after successfully confronting a life threatening illness.
In characteristic fashion, she did it in full out, take no prisoners fashion, applying her sumptuous vocal skills and her dynamic, on-stage enthusiasm to everything she sang.
The program, titled “West Coast Cool,” was actually a well-crafted duo presentation with singer/songwriter Mark Winkler, in which the intrepid pair explored songs generally associated with West Coast Jazz of the ‘50s and ‘60s. That’s a catalog with all sorts of possibilities and they made the most of them, backed superbly by pianist Rich Eames, bassist Tim Emmons and drummer Dave Tull.
Winkler began with a tribute to Chet Baker in a spirited rendering of “But Not For Me,” featuring a vocalese segment written by (of all people) Georgie Fame. He followed up with “Like Young,” a hit single for Andre Previn.
Bentyne began her first segment with a tribute to a distaff West Coast star – Chris Connor – via atmospheric versions such memorable items as “All About Ronnie” and “Trouble Is A Man.”
And that was just the beginning. Over the next couple of hours, Bentyne and Winkler – individually and together – applied their own unique musical intentions to one classic after another.
Among the highlights: a jaunty duet on “Take Five”; a new slant on Neal Hefti’s “Li’l Darling” with West Coast jazz-slanted lyrics by Winkler; a delightful romp through “Whisper Not” in which Cheryl brilliantly displayed her inimitable scatting skills; Winkler having fun with “Lemon Twist” before shifting gears into a moody version of his own “In A Lonely Place.”
Sheryl’s stunning reading of “Something Cool” could only be rivaled by the original June Christy recording. And she was equally authentic with Horace Silver’s “Senor Blues.” Add to that the buoyant interaction between Winkler and Bentyne on tunes such as “It’s the Talk of the Town” and Bobby Troup’s inevitable West Coast classic, “Route 66.”
As I said, a program with all sorts of possibilities. But – as it always does in the finest musical experiences – it all came down to what the performers did with the material. And Winkler did a lot, his light hearted, wittily humorous manner the perfect foil to a laid-back, respect-the-lyrics singing style.
But Winkler would probably be the first to agree that Bentyne – heard again by her fans for the first time in many, many months – was the heat seeking element in the show. As energetically vivacious as ever, her voice resonating with its familiarly mellifluous qualities, energizing the stage with her teasing smiles and vibrant gestures, she announced to one and all the happy news that Cheryl Bentyne is back. Stay tuned for much more.
Photo by Jonathan Widran.