Annie Ross and Stevie Holland at The Metropolitan Room, NYC
During the month of May, there was a most unusual pairing of jazz vocaliststhe legendary Annie Ross and rising star Stevie Holland, both performing every Tuesday night at The Metropolitan Room on Manhattan's West 22nd Street. When I caught them on May 22, they were both in fine form, their joint performance inviting some quick comparisons.
Annie Ross' career has been so varied that she could author several books about each of the genres that she's become involved with. Born in 1930 in Surrey, England she listened when her aunt, Ella Logan, the Broadway Star of Finian's Rainbow, encouraged her to trod the boards at a young age and even take up songwriting (Johnny Mercer recorded the song "Let's Fly" with Paul Weston and the Pied Pipers, including Jo Stafford). She also worked with Paul Whiteman, appeared in a Hollywood Little Rascals singing a jazz version of "Loch Lomand" and popped up as Judy Garland's sister in the film Presenting Lilly Mars. Still not yet twenty years old, she briefly lived in Paris , recorded with James Moody and Charlie Parker, and had a child with drummer Kenny Clarke. After recording for Dizzy Gillespie's label (DG), she finally came to New York, where in the middle 1950s she started writing her vocalese lyrics to jazz standards including "Twisted" and "Farmer's Market." When she became a vital third member in the jazz vocal cooperative Lambert, Hendricks & Ross through 1962, one door closed and another opened, including the solo albums that she made during and after those years. Something even a fan may not know about the following years is that she was asked by British Director Tony Richardson to play Pirate Jenny opposite Vanessa Redgrave in Three Penny Opera in addition to performing in Joe Papp's production of The Pirates of Penzance with Tim Curry. Next, Ross went on to appear in such films as Yanks and Superman III as well as Robert Altman's Short Cuts, in which she appeared as a singer and actress.
There had been no shortage of media coverage regarding Annie Ross' ongoing appearances at The Metropolitan Room, but this listener did not feel any compunction to praise her by virtue of her legacy and was able to view Ross' performance with, we hope, objectivity. However, listeners who cherish vocal memories of Ross' soaring high-end voice on the LH&R repertoire of such numbers as Count Basie's "It's Sand, Man!," Horace Silver's "Come on Home" and Miles Davis' original version of "Four" may be disappointed. When a septuagenarian vocalist keeps the old material in the act, usually it means that the pacing becomes slower as do the songs and that one should expect a larger amount of recititation than singing. I did find that Ross was no exception, but her acting talents came to the fore on such occasions. On the set that I attended her up-tempo standards (other than the LH&R material)the opening "Too Marvelous For Words" and "Have You Got Any Castles, Baby?"were delivered with panache and style.
Any supporting jazz combo that provides the great Warren Vaché on almost every song has to be considered a musical blessing for both the performer and listener. On the opening tune, Johnny Mercer's "Too Marvelous for Words," taken at mid-tempo, Vaché uncorked a beautiful muted trumpet obbligato. "Can it get any better than this?" I asked myself. Neil Miner on bass and Tony Jefferson on drums provided the rhythm.
On the following Vernon Duke standard, "Autumn In New York," Ross spelled out the entire verse of the tune for a rapt audience. A surprise entry came next with Richard Whiting's rarely heard "Have You Got Any Castles, Baby?" showing that she can still move a crowd with an up-tempo tune. On "Speak Low" and "Watch What Happens" the pace was slowed to a crawl while Ross became engaged in a totally nuanced presentation of both ballads.
Musical director and pianist Tardo Hammer provided the musical cues that kept the show going smoothly until it was time for Ross to venture into tricky musical waters with her most well-known vocalese tune, "Twisted," based on a Wardell Gray solo. The long history that I have with this song makes it almost embarrassing that she has to mention that Joni Mitchell did not compose this tune, as everyone should know. The truth is that at age 76, Annie Ross can still bring off the essential meaning of the humorous tune without hesitation. There were some additional diversions with Ross' treatments of the Hugh Martin/Hal Blaine "Every Time" and the bubbling calypso, "An Occasional Man".
Vaché, not to been forgotten all through the set, had been inspiring Ross with his solos, and on the next number, Dizzy Gillespie's "Oop Shoop Shoo Be Doo Be," the two joined in a scat chorus to an appreciative audience reaction. For the conclusion of the set, Ross made a daunting call by performing Jon Hendrick's original lyrics to Ellington's "Cottontail." I don't know why she felt compelled to attempt this one, which is an extremely trip-hammer lyric with which Hendricks always captured an audience' attention during the great Columbia Years of Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. Although Ross didn't get the whole thing down pat, she came close enough.
Following the set, I had a few minutes to chat with Ross, relating my near-misses in seeing LH&R and my disappointment in having to wait so long to see the real thing. I asked her about the importance of the 1957 Sing A Song of Basie session for ABC-Paramount and if the lyrics were cooperative or supplied primarily by Hendricks. She confirmed that, indeed, they all contributed to the tunes. She added that by this time she had enough recorded material from The Metropolitan Room session for a new album.
On the other end of the spectrum Stevie Holland, a vibrant vocalist who attracted attention with her debut album Restless Willow (150 Music, 2004), has been building a fan base with her appearances at The Metropolitan Room. Holland's in-person act gives exactly what you hear on the album a direct and exciting throwback to the age of vocalists circa 1960s when there were plenty of great voices to go around and much more room to share them with the public (unlike today's restrictive preferences and limited venues). Names like Peggy Lee, Shirley Bassey and Nancy Wilson at one time blanketed the New York area nightclubs and concert halls, basically gaining their foothold in these venues. The temper of the times was just right for them whereas nowadays singers with that talent and ability have to work four times as hard to get attention.
Stevie Holland was accompanied by pianist Kris Davis, Chris Van Voorst Van Beest, bass and Jeff Davis on drums, with arrangements by Holland's husband, Gary William Friedman, also the author of a Broadway play that I saw in the 1970s,The Me Nobody Knows. Mr. Davis had a tendency to play too loudly with his brushes on a few of the songs, but Ms. Holland's delivery is so strong that a happy balance was soon reached without any further problems.
There were a few commendable additions to the Stevie Holland set. She's very facile in working with the audience and on transition devices. After a fully charged, up-tempo "Day by Day" from the Sammy Cahn songbook, she segued immediately into a intro for "Follow the Yellow Brick Road," which really acts as the unofficial verse for the Bricusse/Newley "Pure Imagination." Great planning and, well, imagination! Holland then discussed with the audience her experience working in New York, during a less than warm May 2007, with a few minutes of what I'll call "The Less than Lusty Month of May." What follows, as one might guess, is the big ballad from Camelot, "If Ever I Would Leave You." As a preface to Jerome Kern's "Yesterdays" Holland discussed those who have loved and lost.
Stevie Holland may not be the same type of jazz singer who can, or wants to, deconstruct material or to display an ability to re-invent a song written 50 years ago for a good reason. She wisely opts for the melody and harmonization which best display the lyrics as originally written. Would one put her in a corner with Norah Jones or Cassandra Wilson? It seems to me that neither one is even close. She does use jazz material like the Zoot Sims/Dave Frishberg "Red Door/In Walked Zoot" on her 2004 album quite effectively and, as you'll read about for this concert, does blowout version of "Route 66".
We learned that as a backseat passenger in the family car, Holland was a frequent singer (and sing-a- long passenger) of this song as her folks drove through vacation territory. The recording was a Mel Torme four-minute version with the Al Porcino Orchestra, on which Torme tears through the familiar tune, scatting with the instrumentalists and even doing an Ella Fitzgerald impersonation. If you can picture Holland doing the recording "live" but with strong dynamics matching and even topping Torme's and hitting ever note (melody and improvised) without a hitch every night of a stand, it's not hard to understand how she can bring down the house every time. It not only necessitates strict memorization but matching multiple harmonies and existing arrangements.
Holland also provided a fun Frank Loesser/Jimmy McHugh song, "'Murder,' He Says," which I'd previously been unaware of. It was another showstopper with its humorous lyrics well delivered by the singer. Holland must have really dug deep for this one since it was a staple for big band singer and screen actress Betty Hutton (who passed away in March 2007) and was considered one of her hits. The Jobim "Desafinado," literally the first bossa nova hit in the early 1960s, is presented in both Portuguese and the English language version by Jon Hendricks, in which the song's meaning"slightly out of tune"is touchingly delivered. Both Holland and Friedman wrote a song for the singer's father, "Evening Song," which is affectionately sung as a ballad along with Sondheim's "Not While I'm Around."
The set finally ended with a moving version of Martin and Blaine's "The Trolley Song," capped by the Platters' mega-hit from 1955, "Only You," as a festive encore. It had been a grand night for singing. An emotionally-spent but well-satisfied audience rose in thanks for not one but two great performances.