Marilyn Maye & John Pizzarelli at Birdland - New York City Article
Marilyn Maye with Billy Stritch
Through Saturday, August 4
John Pizzarelli with Jessica Molaskey
Through Saturday, August 4
John Pizzarelli and the Swing Seven
Tuesday August 7 through Saturday August 11
315 W 44th Street, (212) 581-3080
Now that Birdland is officially a jazz multiplex - the only such venue I know of (other than Jazz at Lincoln Center) - it’s interesting to see how the bookings downstairs in the new Birdland Theater complement those upstairs in the basic Birdland space we’ve loved for over 20 years. For five nights this week, Tuesday to Saturday, the club has booked two of the funniest, and swingin’est jazz-centric entertainers currently active, Marilyn Maye (in the theater) and John Pizzarelli (upstairs). To have two such supreme funsters occupying the same patch of ground - albeit on different levels (of geography, not of talent) - is almost overkill.
Birdland owner-operator Gianni Valenti has announced that he plans to utilize the new downstairs space for Broadway-and-cabaret-oriented artists, in addition to straight-up jazz, and accordingly they’ve booked an artist who swings both ways in Marilyn Maye. Her current show is one of her best, but where her sets often include extended segments of songs by, say, Ray Charles or Fats Waller (here’s hoping she’ll do a Nat King Cole medley in honor of his centennial next year), this week’s offering is much more theater-centric than usual. There are two tunes by Duke Ellington, but most of the emphasis is on mega-medleys from My Fair Lady, Hello, Dolly, and Mame. (Ms. Maye has headlined in both of those two classic Jerry Herman shows - and she could probably play Eliza Doolittle too if she put her mind to it.) Along the way, she delivered the title song from Golden Rainbow as a samba, “Luck Be a Lady” from Guys and Dolls as a jazz waltz (continually modulating upwards), and allows herself a rare tender interlude with “Joey” from The Most Happy Fella. I’m still waiting for Ms. Maye and Billy Stritch, her subtle powerhouse of an accompanist, to reconfigure the “Quando M’en Vo” from La Boheme into a swinging 5/4 number, if only just to prove that they can do it.
Meanwhile upstairs, two other Birdland vets, John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey, are holding forth in celebration of their 20th anniversary. In what is probably the only self-focused show that either of them will ever do, they decided to use the occasion to bring forth a set of songs written by either of them, with each other - or with other collaborators - and, in several happy cases, constructed out of the bones of classic songs. And that is a surprisingly diverse concept, since his songs sound like hitherto undiscovered masters by the King Cole Trio and hers sound like leftovers and bonus tracks from Joni Mitchell or James Taylor albums. Along the way, it’s also good to hear melodies by Miles Davis (“Seven Steps to Heaven” rededicated to those in 12-step programs, for those of you with the wisdom to know the difference) and Duke Ellington (“Perdido,” actually by Juan Tizol, if you want to get technical, with an “I Got Rhythm” bridge, if you want to get even more technical). Mr. Pizzarelli also introduced a new instrumental, which he called “Nat King Cool,” and amounted to brilliant variations on top of Cole’s even more brilliant variations on “Sweet Georgia Brown.”
Between the two of them, there’s got to be more mirth per square foot transpiring at Birdland this week than anyplace else in the world. You’d think they’d contrast a master musical comic like Ms. Maye or Mr. Pizzarelli with someone less jocular, say, for instance, Keith Jarrett or John Zorn, but no. With Ms. Maye and the Pizzarellis all under one roof, it’s going to be literally impossible to stay away from the place.
Author: Will Friedwald
Will Friedwald writes about music and popular culture for THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, VANITY FAIR and PLAYBOY magazine and reviews current shows for THE CITIVIEW NEW YORK. He also is the author of nine books, including the award-winning A BIOGRAPHICAL GUIDE TO THE GREAT JAZZ AND POP SINGERS, SINATRA: THE SONG IS YOU, STARDUST MELODIES, TONY BENNETT: THE GOOD LIFE, LOONEY TUNES & MERRIE MELODIES, and JAZZ SINGING. He has written over 600 liner notes for compact discs, received ten Grammy nominations, and appears frequently on television and other documentaries. He is also a consultant and curator for Apple Music.
SINATRA: THE SONG IS YOU - NEW REVISED EDITION (Chicago Review Press, May 2018)