There is something undeniably soulful about the jazz sounds of Darius de Haas. At the root of the singer's artistry, beyond his stunning vocal instrument and immaculate control, is his intrinsically theatrical way with a song; he sings each lyric with a keen understanding of what the words are supposed to mean. When he digresses from a melody to add some notes that weren't originally written, you can bet that he's enhancing a song's meaning, not simply showing off his versatile pipes. In his current show at Arci's Place through July 7, Variations on Strayhorn (an act that was critically acclaimed when he premiered it in Lincoln Center's American Songbook series earlier this year), de Haas takes on the work of Billy Strayhorn, Duke Ellington's premier collaborator. In the process, he gives so much of himself to the music that he becomes a collaborator in his own right.
A Broadway singer (Kiss of the Spider Woman, Rent, etc.), de Haas knows his way around a lyric. But what this artist does on a cabaret stage defines him also as a jazz stylist of the highest order. When he sings "Satin Doll" (Ellington/Strayhorn/Mercer), it's like nothing you've ever heard before; he slows the number down and turns it into a character piece full of emotional intensity. Even when he eschews lyrics, de Haas brings his interpretive powers to bear. Consider the passion he brings to "Chelsea Bridge" (Strayhorn), using his voice purely as a musical instrument.
The show takes an unexpected dip when de Haas explores Strayhorn's experiments with the sonnet form; this ethereal material undercuts the energy de Haas has built up, but he nevertheless offers a strong interpretation of one of the composer's most celebrated tunes, "Lush Life." From that point on, the act only gets better, building from a rare, up-tempo tune titled "Got No Time" (Strayhorn/Henderson) to the deeply romantic ballad "Love Came" (Strayhorn/Ellington). In a duet with his saxophone player, the gifted Roy Nathanson, de Haas performs the probing "Something to Live For," in which there is a heart at stake--and the singer makes you feel it. Turning to the blues, de Haas holds a flame to "Just a Sittin' and a Rockin'" (Ellington/Strayhorn/ Gaines) until the tune is smoldering. Gerry Geddes directed this show with the clear intention of creating a performance arc, and in that endeavor he was entirely successful.
The show's patter is earnest at best; de Haas could deliver his information more succinctly and with a bit more style, yet he never seems slick or false whether he's talking or singing. And he certainly delivers on the title of the show: We get a wide variety of Strayhorn songs, offered with an impressive display of vocal variations. Musical director Deidre Rodman anchors the show smoothly from her bench at the piano, and George Farmer plays a wicked bass.