On September 23, 2012 DRG released a brand new recording from Barbara Cook. New in every way: it brings the recent Kennedy Center Honoree in a totally jazz style. Her songs include: “I Hadn’t Anyone But You,” “Loverman,” “The Nearness of You,” “When Sunny Gets Blue,” “More Than You Know,” “House of the Rising Sun,” “Bye Bye Blackbird,” “I Don’t Want Love,” “If I Love Again,” “Let’s Fall in Love,” “What a Wonderful World,” “New York State of Mind,” “Georgia on my Mind,” “Makin; Whoopee.” Barbara’s music director and pianist on this recording is Ted Rosenthal along with Jay Leonhart on bass, Warren Odze on percussion and Lawrence Feldman on woodwinds. An album truly to be in every persons collection!
“I am somewhat surprised with how easily the layouts for some of these songs came to me,” Ms. Cook says. “I suppose I shouldn’t be because Wally Harper, with whom I worked over a period of thirty years, was one of the best song arrangers ever and sitting there right beside him all those years, I was learning from a master without even realizing it.”
When Barbara Cook starts to get serious about singing, she closes her eyes: up until then, she’s been chatty and friendly, full of self-deprecating one liners. She talks about being 84, she talks about not being able to get up on the stage at Feinstein’s by herself, and even when she talks about being presented with the Kennedy Center Honors, she does it a jokey way that seems anything but self-important. But when the music starts, she closes her eyes, and somehow all those little matters that she seemed so concerned with a few minutes earlier are no longer important. It’s kind of night club singing 101 that you’re supposed to make an intimate connection with the audience, by among other things, making eye contact. That may be the first golden rule that Miss Cook tosses out the window. She creates an even more personal and direct connection with everybody in the room without resorting to the use of her eyes - it’s soul-to-soul rather than eye-to-eye. When Barbara Cook sings, all but four essential elements completely disappear: you, her, the music, and that elusive quality known as the truth.
Perhaps it’s part of a deliberate strategy to throw us off guard: at Feinstein’s in April of 2012, where she introduced her interpretations of many of the songs now officially recorded in this album, Miss Cook began each set by making a spectacle out of needing to be helped up on stage by two burly waiters. But when the music starts, as soon as she opens her mouth, without fuss or fanfare, she proceeds to blow every other singer, of any generation or any style, clear out of the water.
It’s altogether appropriate that Barbara Cook and Sonny Rollins should have received the Kennedy Center Honors in the same night. Both Miss Cook and Mr. Rollins (along with Tony Bennett, Marilyn Maye, Lee Konitz, Freddy Cole, Annie Ross, Phil Woods, and a few others, all over 80) are among the major living interpreters of the American Songbook, who make the great songs live and breathe anew for generation after generation.
Early in her first career, as a musical theater leading lady, Barbara Cook was quickly recognized as a singing actress of exceptional ability. Apart from creating the leads in at least two all-time classic shows, The Music Man and She Loves Me, she served as the perennial go-to gal for Rodgers and Hammerstein whenever they needed a new Julie Jordan or Magnolia Hawks. When she graduated from Broadway to launch a solo career in clubs and concert halls, her original endgame was to demonstrate how the great show tunes could stand on their own without the larger frameworks of the shows that they were written for. Stephen Sondheim, whom she’s proud to call a friend (and vice-versa), owes her a particular debt in showing that even his songs, which are extraordinarily rich in character and context, could work in a concert setting (as she proved on the now classic Mostly Sondheim concert and subsequent album).
Forty years ago, Miss Cook proved she had a talent that could be contained by no one musi- cal at a time, that the only proper vehicle for her was a show of all Barbara Cook. Even in her mid-80s, that talent continues to grow; in the last few years especially, she’s similarly moved be- yond the precisely detailed boundaries of the strict Broadway repertoire. In a certain sense, the repertoire of her solo shows has been autobiographical: when her sets were mostly show tunes, they reflected her career in her twenties and thirties, when she was singing in musical theater; for this current set, she goes back much further, to the great popular songs that first entered her con- sciousness as a music-minded youngster growing up in Atlanta during the war years and earlier.
The results are blissfully eclectic: by and large, this is a program by outstanding composers who rarely wrote for the theater, most notably Hoagy Carmichael, who is represented in two songs. In performance, she tells the crowd that she’s never previously sung Carmichael’s music before, yet her treatment of “The Nearness of You” is heartbreakingly tender, each time she utters “Oh no...” she packs enough emotion into that apparent throwaway phrase for it to stand as a song in itself. Likewise, she informs us in her patter that even though she grew up in Atlanta, she bears no particular affection for Georgia, moon- light, pines, and all. Yet the way she sings “Georgia on My Mind” tells us quite the opposite. (Personally speaking, I’ve never even been to Georgia, except en route to New Orleans, but she makes me love it too.)
If you had asked me recently, I would have said that Marvin Fisher’s “When Sunny Gets Blue,” a favorite of female jazz singers in the late 1950s and ‘60s, has been justly sung by many of the greats, yet after hearing Miss Cook, it becomes abundantly clear that the world needed another version, a whole differ- ent interpretation, much more tender and sensitive than any previous. The major competition is that of the late Nat King Cole; Cole may have also been the indirect inspiration for “I Don’t Want Love” by retro rockabilly star Dan Hicks. It’s exactly the kind of gastronomically-driven “list” song that Cole would have done with his trio (in the same vein as “Frim Fram Sauce,” which Miss Cook has also sung wonderfully).
“I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” “Makin’ Whoopee,” “More Than You Know” and “Bye Bye Black- bird” were born on Broadway, and “ “If I Love Again” and “Let’s Fall in Love” originated in Hollywood, yet all of these songs have been part of the jazz world for much longer. Further, the album’s title, “Lov- erman,” a Billie Holiday signature, “What a Wonderful World,” the coda to Louis Armstrong’s career, and bandleader Ray Noble’s “I Hadn’t Anyone Till You” all take Miss Cook more deeply into the jazz repertoire than she’s ever gone before. When she sings them, she isn’t trying to reinvent herself as a jazz singer (even when she scats on “I Don’t Want Love”) but rather to interpret them on her own terms, to give them the same respect she gives Oscar Hammerstein. She isn’t trying to out-swing Ella Fitzgerald, but few would deny she gets a solid beat going - this is a Barbara Cook album that you can dance to.
“New York State of Mind” (which she makes sound almost as good as “Georgia on my Mind”) and “House of the Rising Sun” are associated with contemporary pop (in the sense that any post-1960 pop music is contemporary), although “Rising Sun” is much older, and Miss Cook leavens its downer message with the melancholy optimism of “Bye Bye Blackbird.” She has grown beyond any niche or any barrier to become an artist of truly universal scope. Clearly, when she shuts her eyes, it’s to help her focus on the images in her own mind that she’s already brought to life so vividly in ours.
- WILL FRIEDWALD
Adapted from an article that ran in The Wall Street Journal on April 13, 2012