Dame Cleo Laine and her musical consort, John Dankworth, were originally scheduled to open at Feinstein's at the Regency on September 11. Talk about bad timing. Well, they finally got to Feinstein's to make up for that missed gig, so now let's talk about great talent. Dankworth joins his award- and title-winning wife in celebrating their 25th year of musical partnership. This collaboration has produced some of the finest jazz to be heard on either side of the Atlantic.
Cleo Laine's voice has more range than Texas. She can create a sound as deep and rumbling as a freight train in a tunnel and then hit a high note that a hummingbird might envy. Her vocal beauty, dexterity, and control are marvels, but what ultimately sets her apart--and what makes her jazz royalty, with or without the Queen's say-so--is her ability to suffuse with emotion the incredible sounds she makes. The title of her show at Feinstein's is The Dame Takes Manhattan and, with her talent and skill, she does just that.
Dankworth flanks Laine during much of their act, alternately playing saxophone and clarinet. Three other band members provide backup, including Tommy James at the piano (no, not that Tommy James; there are no Shondells in this act), Dave Dunaway on bass, and Jim Zimmerman on drums. Dame Cleo often gets the lion's share of the praise in the Laine-Dankworth partnership, including the royal moniker, but Dankworth's contribution to their act cannot be underestimated. He's a gifted player, of course, but he's also a giant of a jazz arranger. Listen to his take on W.C. Handy's "St. Louis Blues," seemingly inspired by the climate of that fabled burg, about which it is said: "If you don't like the weather, wait a minute, it'll change." The arrangement exhibits marked shifts of tempo and style, modulating with the wild abandon of a midwestern tornado. It's a "show-me" kind of chart and it does, indeed, show off both Dankworth's creativity and Laine's vocal virtuosity.
Dankworth is also a delightful front man. He possesses a dry sense of humor, demonstrated here in his clever introduction of a staggering, seven-song Cole Porter medley: He acknowledges the folly of cutting so many great songs into bite-sized bits, making us laugh at--and finally accept--his reasons for doing so. Then there is Dankworth the creator. His collaborators include Shakespeare (there are jazz settings of several sonnets) and Mozart (an item called "Turkish Delight," written specifically for Laine, who is probably the only singer in the world capable of vocalizing it).
At various points in the show, Laine matches Dankworth on the clarinet note-for-note, coming across as a jazz version of an opera diva. When the lady is mimicking an instrument, it's all about the sound; but when she sings a number like "Speak Low" (Weill/Nash), lyric interpretation takes precedence. For three weeks at Feinstein's--through February 2--New Yorkers can revel in the musicianship of this legendary pair and get a sweet taste of the cream that has risen to the top of the jazz world.