By Don Heckman
Robert Davi was back at Herb Alpert’s Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc. Thursday night. And that was great news for fans of the Great American Songbook – as well as fans of Great American pop singing, which Davi does brilliantly.
A highly visible actor, Davi is one of the most memorable tough guys since the era of Humphrey Bogart. In his first film, Contract On Cherry Street, he shared the spotlight with Frank Sinatra, a forecast of a connection that would unfold in his music career. He was also seen as the villain Franz Sanchez in the James Bond film, License To Kill. Add to that his presence in the TV series, Profiler and dozens of other pictures, ranging from Diehard, Showgirls and The Goonies to the more recent films The Iceman and The Expendables 3.
Musically, he’s one of the most authentic successors to the Sinatra style. His recent album, Davi Sings Sinatra: On the Road to Romance, hit #6 in Billboard‘s Top 10 Jazz Chart.
But his achievements as an actor and a singer – despite their stylistic orientation – cannot be described as type-casting. Whatever assignment Davi takes on, in both arenas, he makes his own. And his Thursday night performance at Vibrato was a definitive example of how he has transformed his affection for the Sinatra style into a uniquely engaging musical expressiveness. And he has done so while including a substantial number of Sinatra related songs in his catalog.
Singing to a packed house at Vibrato, Davi was backed by the stellar ensemble of pianist/music director Randy Waldman, vibist Emil Richards, guitarist Mitch Holder, saxophonist/flutist Gene “Cip” Cipriano and drummer Dave Tull.
As in any Davi performance, the first aspect one noticed was the rich, warm intensity of his voice. Trained operatically, blessed with a superb natural instrument, he used his remarkable vocal assets at the service of his equally impressive interpretive skills.
The program sparkled with Sinatra-related tunes, among them the opening “I’ve Got The World On A String,” as well as “Fly Me To The Moon,” “Luck Be A Lady,” “Tender Trap,” “Come Rain Or Come Shine,” “The Best Is Yet To Come” and a lot more. Davi sang most of them while roving among the tables with a wireless microphone, delighting his enthusiastic listeners by delivering his songs with up close musical intimacy.
There were other intriguing moments in the program, as well. Shifting into his humorous mode, Davi – who recently returned from working on a film in Moscow – described meeting the “Russian Sinatra.” Imitating what he heard, Davi sang “The One I Love Belongs To Somebody Else” with his version of a Russian accent.
In a very different mode, he offered a dedication to Maya Angelou before singing “Old Man River,” with the full range of his remarkable voice, then following it with “River Stay Away From My Door.” Interestingly both songs were performed by both Sinatra and Paul Robeson.
Add to that the rarely heard Cy Coleman/Michael Stewart song (which was also performed by Sinatra) “I Love My Wife.” In addition, Davi included a touching version of “Send In the Clowns,” yet another example of his expanding catalog of songs.
There was one more aspect to this extraordinary evening which was, in addition to its entertainment, a benefit for the organization “America’s Mighty Warriors.” Davi has long been a supporter of the men and women in America’s armed forces. And, midway through the performance actor Jon Voigt introduced Debbie Lee, founder of the organization, whose son, Marc Allen Lee, was killed in action in Iraq while defending his companions.
To Find Out More about “America’s Mighty Warriors” click HERE.
Appropriately, Davi also sang “The House I Live In,” from the short 1946 film of the same name (which featured Sinatra) opposing anti-semitism and racial prejudice.
In sum, the Thursday night performance at Vibrato was memorable in many ways. And Robert Davi deserves full credit for bringing all its elements together. More than a singer and an actor, he is an artist with his own growing, creative vision.