Judy Kuhn
(© Joseph Marzullo/Retna)
Judy Kuhn
(© Joseph Marzullo/Retna)
Since its debut in 1998, Lincoln Center's American Songbook series has become one of the year's most awaited events, as it gives music lovers the chance to hear some of the country's most talented artists doing what they do best. And now that they get to do so inside the gorgeous Allen Room on the fifth floor of Jazz at Lincoln Center overlooking Central Park, the response -- by audiences and artists alike -- has been even stronger.

While the series technically started last October, with Audra McDonald's Building Bridges concert, the series goes into full swing on January 17 with a performance by Mos Def's Big Band. There will be 15 other programs over the next few weeks, including Broadway favorite Judy Kuhn (January 19), Josh Ritter (January 31), Calexico (February 8), Jason Robert Brown (February 9), Betty Buckley (February 10), Ute Lemper (February 21), and Jane Monheit (February 24).

"I'm very excited about this season," says artistic director Jon Nakagawa. "We're trying to continue our evolution of representing what the American Songbook really means," he says. To that end, he's particularly thrilled to include such talents as veteran pop-singer songwriter Michael Franks (January 20) and the award-winning bluegrass group The Cherryholmes (February 7) in the series. "Michael has been a favorite of mine since I was a teenager, and I think it's amazing that he's had this 40-year career where he's stayed true to his sound," he says. "And when I first heard the Cherryholmes' CD, I was just blown away by their purity."

Perhaps the crowning achievement of this year's Songbook will be a 50th Anniversary Celebration for the Academy Award-winning songwriters Alan and Marilyn Bergman, featuring special guests Melissa Errico, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Sandy Stewart, Billy Stritch, Lari White, and Lillias White on February 2. "We've been pursuing them awhile, and when I called this time and they mentioned this anniversary, we decided it was a perfect time for them to come," he notes.

Nakagawa was also heavily involved in putting together one of the most anticipated offerings in the series: Kuhn's concert, which will be devoted exclusively to the music of 1960s pop favorite Laura Nyro, who wrote such popular songs as "Stoney End" "Tom Cat Blues," and "Wedding Bell Blues." "I was never tempted to do a conventional theater program," she says. "But it's also much easier to choose material when you have a specific focus, so when Jon suggested doing Laura's work, I liked the idea."

This isn't Kuhn's first time singing Nyro's music; in 2001, she starred in Eli's Comin', the Obie-winning revue of Nyro's work at the Vineyard Theatre. "I didn't know much about Laura before I did that show, and now I've learned so much more about her and her place in the history of songwriting while working on this show," she says. "Still, I'm quite surprised how many people my age still say 'Laura Nyro, who is she?'"

Indeed, Kuhn talks about Nyro with an almost religious reverence. "I want people to understand how important she was; Laura was one of the first women to record her own music. She was 16 years old when she wrote 'When I Die,' and her plan was to sell her songs. It wasn't her ambition to make her own recordings," says Kuhn. "When she did make records, she did it her own way. She was very idiosyncratic; there were constantly changing tempos and there was an almost improvisatory feel to some of the records. People who love her are devoted to her and other people thought she was a little much."

Kuhn is determined to make Nyro's material her own, which is something of a tall order. "I couldn't copy her style even if I wanted to; and sometimes I liked what she did so much, I did want to copy it," she says. "I saw a lot of footage of her on YouTube. But I've been focusing on erasing her from my head in terms of performance and owning the songs myself."

Not only is acclaimed cabaret singer and Broadway star Jessica Molaskey --who appeared at last year's Songbook as a cast member of the John Bucchino revue It's Only Life -- performing this year, but so is her husband, singer-guitarist John Pizzarelli. While the couple frequently work together -- they co-host the weekly syndicated radio show Radio Deluxe and will debut a new act at the Café Carlyle in May -- they won't be sharing the Songbook stage.

Jessica Molaskey and John Pizzarelli
(© StarTrax)
Jessica Molaskey and John Pizzarelli
(© StarTrax)
Molaskey will join Peter Eldridge, Kate McGarry and Michael Winther in singing the songs of jazz pianist-composer Fred Hersch on January 18. "I'm particularly excited to sing Fred's music; he writes these classical jazz-like solos. They're like true art songs," says Molaskey. "I so admire his musicianship. I've been lucky enough to be part of his record, 2 Hands, 10 Voices, and I did this workshop of a song cycle he wrote about photography, some of which we'll be doing for the concert."

She's also thrilled to return to the Allen Room. "I love it. I think it's almost iconic because it was built expressly for jazz and music, and it has an energy that makes me happy," she says. "I just love looking out the big windows and watching the cars go down Central Park South."

Pizzarelli will be making his Songbook debut on Saturday, February 3 as he presents his new show Dear Mr. Sinatra, based in part on his new CD of the same name recorded with The Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra. "What I love about the CD and the show is that the arrangements are really written for the band; it's not about having 10 guitar solos. Plus, a lot of these songs were specifically written for Sinatra; they didn't come from shows," he says.

Asked why he thinks Sinatra's legacy still endures, Pizzarelli says: "He was around for six decades and in that way he was a part of so many different generations." Indeed, Pizzarelli grew up listening to Sinatra records, but without fully focusing on the singer. "My dad, [jazz guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli], was always more interested in the arrangements than the singers," he says. "It was even true of my early albums."

Both father and son worked with the Chairman of the Board; in fact, John opened for Sinatra during one of his last tours. Did the legendary star give the young performer any advice? "He only spoke to me once," relates Pizzarelli. "He said 'you look terrible, eat something.'"