By Don Heckman
Studio City, CA. The stage setting for Cheryl Bentyne’s performance at Vitello’s Friday night seemed surprisingly spare. An acoustic bass and a music stand on the left, a pair of guitars and a music stand on the right, and a stool and a vocal mic in the middle.
That was it. “Up Close & Personal” was the title Cheryl gave her performance. And it was right on target: Kevin Axt on bass, Wayne Johnson on guitar, and Cheryl in the center. No drums, no piano, no horns. None of which were needed in two sets of exquisite songs performed with intimate lyrical and musical clarity. One couldn’t have asked for more.
A multiple Grammy-winning member of the Manhattan Transfer, Cheryl has long been drawn to a far-ranging collection of material, with the Transfer, as well as her superb solo performances. And on this magical evening, her choices combined to illuminate a gallery of what might best be described as contemporary art song.
Several familiar standards – “Love For Sale,” “I’m A Fool To Want You” and “It Might As Well Be Spring” — book-ended the evening with Cheryl’s convincing interpretations.
Her versatility surfaced with more pop oriented songs from Nelly MacKay, k.d. lang, Lennon & McCartney, Leonard Cohen, Melody Gardot and Patricia Barber. And Cheryl displayed her jazz perspectives with Horace Silver’s “Senor Blues,” Matt Dennis’ “Angel Eyes” and Landesman/Wolf’s “Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most.”
As if that wasn’t a fully adequate expression of her versatility, Cheryl also included several lush film melodies by Ennio Morriconne, enhanced by her own lyrics.
Each tune was supported – often in brilliantly spontaneous fashion – by the stirring contributions of Axt and Johnson. And, in addition to their keenly balanced backing, they offered inventive solo passages.
Ultimately, of course, even the most appealing program of songs – no matter how eclectic – calls for convincing vocal interpretations. And Cheryl’s readings, with their rich musicality, reached into the inner heart of everything she sang.
She is, seemingly by nature as well as skill, a dramatic performing artist. Whether she was swinging her way through “Senor Blues,” capturing the deep intimacies of the Cohen and Barber songs, as well as her Morriconne collaborations, or telling her sometimes jocular between-songs remarks, she was utterly captivating.
By the time Cheryl concluded the long embraces of her two sets of songs, the only thing missing was perhaps another word to add to the program’s title. It might more accurately have said “Up Close, Musical & Personal.”
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Photos by Faith Frenz.