Feinstein's at the Regency is no place for a cheap date. If you go to an upscale nightclub of that sort, it's probably hosting a performer that you really want to see. Sometimes, Feinstein's outdoes itself with a booking that doesn't just motivate you to pick up the phone and make a reservation, it compels you to do so and then to get yourself to the club for something downright unforgettable. Right now, through March 2, you will find yourself alternately mesmerized, amused, and moved by the artistry of George Shearing, the astonishing, 82-year-old genius of jazz.
While a recent headline in The New York Times described young jazz phenom Peter Cincotti as "eighteen going on legend," you can experience the artistry of a true legend right now in the performance of Shearing. In fact, catching both of these gentlemen during their current New York engagements (Cincotti is at the Algonquin Hotel's Oak Room) may provide an exhilarating sense of potential versus accomplishment; they are living bookends that suggest, between them, a world of music.
Shearing is presently celebrating Mel Tormé in a show called Remembering Mel. The two men shared an extraordinary collaboration that lasted 14 years and resulted in, among a great many other things, two Grammy Awards. Most of Shearing's act consists of songs that Tormé either wrote or performed during their years together. It begins with an elegant thumbnail video rendition of Tormé's life, largely presented in still images while "The Velvet Fog" himself sings on the soundtrack. Several video screens near the stage flicker with these nostalgic pictures before Shearing is helped to the stage.
Born blind, and now somewhat frail, Shearing is gingerly guided to his place of glory at the piano. Only his entrance and his later exit exhibit great effort; once he begins playing, everything he does seems effortless. There isn't even a hint of showboating in his performance, which can't be said for many other jazz artists. Shearing eschews ostentatious riffs and "look-at-me" solos. He doesn't reach out and grab you; rather, he plays with such confidence and delicacy that you suddenly find yourself intoxicated, as if you've been drinking something mild and unassuming that catches you by surprise with its incredible wallop. There's no better example of this in the show at hand than when he slides from "Born to be Blue" (Wells/Tormé) into "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square" (Maschwitz/Sherwin/Strachey). The latter song, so exquisitely rendered, allows you to hear the lyric in your mind even as the music goes straight to your heart. We cannot think of another jazz instrumentalist who is so in tune, if you will, with lyrics as Shearing is when he plays.
In much the same way, Shearing is a jazz instrumentalist who never loses sight of the melody. Regardless of the liberties he may take with a song, he's always within earshot of the melodic line, as in his bouncy take on "Paper Moon" (Arlen/Harburg/Rose) and his short and sweet "I Had the Craziest Dream" (Warren/Gordon). Nor does Shearing shy away from humor; though he doesn't talk much, his patter is priceless. But nothing compares to his finale, a heartbreaking rendition of "Every Time We Say Goodbye" (Cole Porter). It's the only song Shearing sings, and he tears at your soul as he offers a farewell that seems all but final. Then, to undercut the sentiment, he adds a few lines to the number, telling the audience to drive home carefully "because I'll be walking." You gotta love him.
And you've got to love the centerpiece of Shearing's show. It begins with another short stretch of video in which we see and hear Tormé in concert with Shearing at the piano, displaying musicianship of the highest order. Then, as the video ends, Shearing and his fantastic backup guys (Neil Swainson on bass and Reg Schwager on guitar) are heard playing the same tune, carrying the essence of that bright and beautiful sound through the decades and making it live again in the moment. For George Shearing, the music is unending.