Monday, April 8, 2013

A night to remember

Miss Cook in action.
I spent Saturday night this past weekend with an old friend, Barbara Cook (at left). No, Miss Cook doesn't know me personally - just as she doesn't know the two or three thousand people who also crowded Symphony Hall for her Celebrity Series concert.  

But it seems as if she does; such is the intimate magic of her singing style.  It sounds almost funny to say that the greatest torch song singer alive is now 85 years young - but it's true.  It's also true, I suppose, that Miss Cook's sunny soprano has grown dusky with the years, and so she no longer attempts the high notes of signature tunes like "Ice Cream" (in days gone by she could even hit the coloratura heights of "Glitter and Be Gay").

This hardly matters, however; indeed the slow retreat of her voice to its warm, golden core has only brought a poignant glow to her singing.  For time cannot touch the essence of Miss Cook's appeal, which simply transcends questions of range or even technique.  For this lady doesn't seem to sing a song - she just lives it; next to her, every other vocalist on the planet seems to be trying a little too hard.

Whence comes this legendary magic?  I'm not sure - no one is - and I don't think you can bottle it, as Miss Cook's recordings, wonderful as they are, can't convey the luminous aura she projects from the stage.  As a sentimental old song begins to bloom in her hands (and they always do, however familiar they may be), and she gazes out into the crowd, it soon seems as if - as the old cliché insists - everything and everyone in the concert hall has vanished but the two of you.  And maybe the piano.

At least that was the trick she accomplished with Hoagy Carmichael's gorgeous "The Nearness of You" - a song she has only recently added to her repertoire (yes, at 85 she's still working on new material).  It was enough to leave her co-star for the evening, the noted jazz guitarist, vocalist and band leader John Pizzarelli, briefly speechless. And could you blame him? Poor Mr. Pizzarelli! The son of legendary guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli, he's a brilliant and wide-ranging talent - a fabulously nimble instrumentalist and a lightly witty singer. He's also, of course, "the Foxwoods guy" (a star-making gig he no doubt regards today with some degree of rue) as well as a major concert draw in his own right; and he and his crack quartet (brother Martin Pizzarelli on double bass, Tony Tedesco on drums, and the lightning-fingered Larry Fuller on piano) are tighter than a duck's - well, you know. 

But the bemused Pizzarelli knew somehow that in Miss Cook he was up against something bigger than all of us. I think somewhere, she knows it too. Hence, perhaps, the long good-bye (she's got club dates booked well into the future); she doesn't want to give up - and we don't want to give her up. Indeed, at the finish, people cried out for just one more tune, even though with pianist Ted Rosenthal she had already delivered a bouquet of flowers from the American songbook - "I've Got the World on a String," "The Very Thought of You," a wickedly droll "Makin' Whoopee," "We Three," and the lesser known (but Grammy-nominated, in Shirley Horn's haunting rendition) "Here's to Life."

She also happily dueted on a snappy "I Got Rhythm" as well as a sweet "Just You, Just Me;" and Pizzarelli had his solo moments too, including a charming version of the list-song "Rhode Island," and a quietly moving take on, yes, "As Time Goes By" (he included the forgotten, but utterly wonderful, lead-in verses, which refer to Einstein!).  And to be honest, I thought I could sense his influence on Cook; her phrasing on Saturday was ever so slightly looser and syncopated, ever so subtly more conversational. We all got a sense of this in the penultimate sing-along, "Shine On, Harvest Moon," as well as the encore, Lennon's "Imagine," sung sans amplification, in a gentle nod to the ideals that have quietly informed Miss Cook's career.  Yes, she has always been a dreamer; by the end of the night, so were we all.  And what we were dreaming was that we'd someday have the chance to hear her give another concert like this one.

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