By Roger Crane
Los Angeles. In 2013 jazz pianist, Keith Jarrett, who issued a series of albums that featured the standards, was asked “What do standards mean to you and why have you recorded so many?” Jarrett replied, “First of all, they are anything but standard by today’s standards. But they are exceptional.” These exceptional songs as Jarrett observed “came rushing in from the 1920s through the early 1950s” but, most intensely in a 2-decade span, 1925 – 1945. The cream of the standards are said to make up the Great American Songbook (GAS). Although pervasive, the origin of this term is uncertain. It was first used as a title of a live 1972 Atlantic album by singer Carmen McRae. In that same year, composer and musicologist Alec Wilder published a successful book titled American Popular Song (Oxford Press), perhaps the first book to definitively assess the standards as worthy of serious discussion.
On last Tuesday night at Catalina Popescu’s long-running Hollywood jazz venue, Catalina’s Bar and Grill, over twenty of those exceptional GAS songs were performed by three very talented vocalists.
The delightful Barbara Morrison kicked off the show with a series of Harold Arlen songs, beginning with his spare, hymn-like “My Shining Hour.” She sang “Stormy Weather” accompanied beautifully by only John Clayton’s bass. She closed with another Arlen ballad, the remarkable ”Last Night When We Were Young,” which Frank Sinatra liked so much he recorded it twice. In the mix, of course, Morrison included some swinging Arlen tunes such as “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive,” demonstrating all the vivacious flare needed to make an audience happy. She is bottled sunshine, a visual delight as well as aural and. if you don’t find yourself smiling in her presence – well, check your pulse.
I have often thought of Stephanie Haynes as a well-kept secret and she is too talented to be so overlooked. She has graced Southern Californians with her warm, luxuriant alto for many decades, but has not recorded half – or even a third – as often as her talents dictate. Haynes chose the songs of composer Harry Warren, who probably wrote more well-known songs than either Gershwin or Kern. But, although many listeners know his songs, they do not know his name. Haynes’ Catalina segment was an impressive demonstration of how the familiar can be made fresh and how the arcane can appear familiar. For example she sang the lesser-known “Friendly Star” (from the movie Summer Stock) as a waltz, although it was written in four. “Summer Night” (from the movie Sing Me a Love Song) is perhaps even more neglected but Haynes’ rendition makes one wonder why this song, one of Warren’s more pure and beautiful melodies, never became a standard. It deserves much more recognition. Although Fats Waller had fun with Warren’s “Sweet and Slow,” the song is mostly ignored. Thankfully, Haynes sang it both sweet and slow as dictated by Al Dubin’s sexy lyrics. Many other Warren songs were performed of course, including “This Is Always,” and each was a gem. Haynes was in superb voice and, once again – as she does each time she performs – proved that she is one of the finest jazz singers.
Jackie Ryan lives in the Bay area but, on occasion, blesses Angelinos with her deep, honey-rich contralto. For the show’s third and final segment, she selected songs written by or associated with Duke Ellington. Ryan is a master of ballads and mesmerized the Catalina patrons with that famous song about the weary diva “Sophisticated Lady,” performing it in a medley with Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life.” Ryan’s smoky voice and flexibility make her a natural fit for torch songs but she is the complete singer and can handle rhythm tunes with ease and she also romped at a swinging beat on such tunes as “Duke’s Place.” Thankfully, Ryan introduced the audience to two lesser known Ducal songs, “Kissing Bug” and the even more obscure “You Better Know It,” two songs kept alive by such vocalists as Nina Simone and June Christy.
Morrison, Haynes and Ryan were given sympathetic support by their musical director Doug McDonald. In addition to his own guitar work, the band included pianist Josh Nelson, bassist John Clayton, and Paul Kreibich at the drum set. The arrangements and accompaniment were, to fall back on a cliché, exemplary. They were also apposite and unobtrusive and, since this was a night to focus on the song, let the songs and the singers take center stage as they should. Collectively, the Great
American Songbook constitutes one of the great cultural achievements of the twentieth century. A warm thanks to Merle Kreibich for continuing to present the very best in jazz and thanks to the Catalina staff and the patrons for their courtesy and attentiveness. The room was full and for a Great American Songbook event that was encouraging. The GAS flame was alive and burning bright for one stellar night in Hollywood.
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