Voices of the Night
Running the gamut of song repertoire and performance style with Steve Tyrell, Chris Calloway, and Natalie Blalock.
Steve Tyrell: A Standard Response
Steve Tyrell's voice has the sound of an orchestra of broken hearts in it. Whether that is due to cigarettes, whiskey, or genetics, the raspy, masculine sound he brings to each of his selections is unique and memorable. A recording artist with two hit CDs that continue to flourish near the top of Billboard's jazz chart, Tyrell makes magic with the Great American Songbook. When we saw his first show at Feinstein's at the Regency last year, we reveled in his sound and gave him a free pass for his awkward but sincere stage presence. A longtime record producer who suddenly found fame as a singer, he seemed like a kid in a candy store--and who could blame him? Now, in his second gig at Feinstein's, he seems like someone who defines the difference between a recording artist and an entertainer.
When Tyrell is singing, all of his emotion seems lodged in his vocal chords; you don't see it anywhere on his face, and certainly not in his eyes. He sells his songs strictly though sound, making no attempt to show what he's feeling through other means of expression. Yes, he has a winning smile, but he uses it indiscriminately. On opening night at Feinstein's, he casually waved at people, smiled, and gave them thumbs-up while singing ballads like "I Can't Get Started" and "That Old Feeling." He might as well have been in a studio; everything he was doing on stage diminished the lyrics he seemed to be singing by rote. Those present would have been far more likely to enjoy his performance if they'd closed their eyes.
With that in mind, consider Tyrell's latest CD, Standard Time--which is also the title of his act at Feinstein's. The Columbia disc offers a considerable number of tunes that Tyrell sings in the show, including one of two duets he performed live with Tony Bennett's daughter, Antonia. (On the CD, the duet is with Jane Monheit.) It's instructive to note that, at Feinstein's, Tyrell and Bennett sang both of their duets facing forward, never once turning right or left. As a result, approximately 70 percent of the audience never saw Bennett's face full on. She sounded great...but we were seated to her extreme right and, therefore, have no idea if she can act a lyric. A more adept performer than Tyrell would never have allowed something like this to happen--especially not with Tony Bennett himself in the audience!
On the plus side, Tyrell sings great songs like "Georgia on My Mind" and "Give Me the Simple Life." He also surrounds himself with first class musicians: an exhilarating, seven-piece band packed with world-class players. In particular, Lew Soloff's trumpet riffs and Eliot Douglass's piano solos are exquisitely expressive. On uptempo numbers, Tyrell could often be heard calling out "Yeah, baby!" to various members of the band. We don't doubt the sincerity of his reactions but, after awhile, we thought we were in an Austin Powers musical. (Steve Tyrell is at Feinstein's at the Regency through February 16.)
Chris Calloway: A Different Standard
Chris Calloway, the talented daughter of entertainment icon Cab Calloway, is performing at the Park Avenue South cabaret club Arci's Place through Saturday, February 9. Titled Celebration of a Legacy, Calloway's show lightly and lovingly invokes her musical heritage. She sings songs associated with her famous father as well as her impressive Aunt Blanche, who fronted her own band in the 1930s called Blanche Calloway and Her Joy Boys.
Calloway uses her family fame as both a source of pride and as a vehicle to express her own considerable vocal talent. Actually, she has a voice that puts her father's to shame; Cab Calloway was a bandleader and showman of the first rank, but his daughter can sing in seemingly any register and in a variety of styles. Her voice is as free and easy as any you'll hear. The one area in which she's lacking might also be part of her legacy: She is so intent upon entertaining that she relies far too heavily on shtick. Calloway never endows songs like "Stormy Weather" and "Blues in the Night" with serious emotional intent. She's plenty stylish, has loads of personality, and connects with her audience, but she never digs beneath the surface of a song. She can swing or put over a comedy number, but she doesn't move us. That's too bad, because she's got the talent to do so.
Natalie Blalock: Nothing Standard Here!
We didn't want an important cabaret happening to go unremarked, so let it be known that Natalie Blalock recently took her act from Don't Tell Mama on West 46th Street and made the leap to the high-profile stage of Joe's Pub, downtown at the Public Theater, for a one-night only engagement.
This is noteworthy for several reasons. First, it's vital that performers who work in smaller clubs get the opportunity to move to larger venues where they can attract a bigger and a potentially more diverse audience. Second, Blalock did the cabaret community a great service by packing Joe's Pub for her show, thereby proving to the management that performers like her can be commercially successful there. Third, the cabaret community did a great service to Blalock by coming out for her; their solidarity was impressive and touching.
While Blalock's act could use a bit more focus--it meanders through issues of sexual identity--it does demonstrate beyond a doubt that its star is exceptionally talented. We don't use the word "star" lightly: Blalock's stage presence is magnetic and her skills as a musical comedy performer are worth clucking over...which she does herself, stopping the show with her performance of "Don't Cry For Me, Argentina" as a chicken! So gifted is Blalock that she can share the stage with the sensational, scene-stealing Eric Pickering and Traci Reynolds as her backup performers and still command the spotlight. The star's generosity and luminosity were also in evidence when she invited Jenifer Kruskamp, who may have the best set of pipes in cabaret, to join her and Reynolds on stage for the encore.