By Don Heckman
Robert Davi made a return visit to Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc., Wednesday and Thursday nights. And, once again, Herb Alpert’s elegant jazz club was overflowing with enthusiastic listeners eager to hear singer/actor Davi’s engaging tribute to Frank Sinatra.
The timing couldn’t have been better.
Wednesday, December 12, was Old Blue Eyes’ 97th birthday. A year ago, Davi celebrated Sinatra’s 96th birthday with the release of the Davi Sings Sinatra: On The Road To Romance, establishing his deep understanding of the Sinatra canon of song. This time out, however, Davi stepped away from the big band settings usually associated with Sinatra. Instead, he took a different musical path, using a sextet similar to a group Sinatra used in a 1962 world tour.
The results were fascinating, the smaller ensemble’s lighter back up sounds opening space for Davi to sing with compelling musicality, while reaching into the heart of a song. Like Sinatra, his phrasing evoked the richest story-telling aspects of a song.
And Davi did so with a program of material underscoring his assertion that the Great American Songbook is America’s Shakespeare. He cruised through more than twenty songs – starting with high spirited renderings of “I’ve Got The World On A String” and “At Long Last Love.”
He thoroughly recalled the Sinatra mood and memory with songs that have been virtually embossed with the unique Sinatra stylings – songs such as “Fly Me To The Moon,” “I’ve Got the World On A String” and “”The Best Is Yet To Come,” (among others). And Davi did so within the warm, interpretive embrace of his own style. Between songs, he recalled his affection for and friendship with Sinatra. Occasionally telling a story or a joke related to his Italian heritage, he was quick to identify songwriters (a practice many singers have nearly forgotten).
Davi also included the rarely heard Johnny Mercer ballad “The Summer Wind,” as well as a jaunty reading of “Luck Be A Lady,” Frank Loesser’s gambler’s plea from the musical Guys and Dolls. And of course “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” with the sextet performing with the same brio of the familiar big band arrangement.
Difficult as it may be to find a single highlight in such a superb program, I can’t overlook the remarkable, mid’40s work, “The House I Live In,” a powerful cry against racism and bigotry Sinatra performed in a short documentary film of the same name.
Davi’s reading of it was equally powerful, generated by the combination of Davi’s convincing interpretive skills and a memorable work, written by Abel Meeropol (who also wrote “Strange Fruit”).
Singing for an audience that included the iconic producer/arranger/composer Quincy Jones and the brilliant jazz pianist Alfredo Rodriguez among its celebrity listeners, Davi stayed with the songs — poised, confident and musical.
Inspired by Sinatra, whom he performed with in his first film, Contract On Cherry St., Davi honored his memory in the best possible way – with a brilliant evening recalling the best of the Sinatra songbook.