American Songbook With Vanessa Williams And Stacey Kent

Vanessa Williams
Vanessa Williams on Wednesday night at The Appel Room for the Lincoln Center American Songbook Series. Photo by Kevin Yatarola.

Lincoln Center’s American Songbook series had Vanessa Williams last night at the incredible Appel Room. I do find myself watching the long stretch of 59th Street and the dark Central Park drama on the left vs the bustling Midtown to the right instead of what’s going on on the stage. But with Vanessa Williams, it was a different experience. I hadn’t seen her perform before and I wasn’t that familiar with all of her Broadway stuff, but really liked her R&B and Soul albums so far.

So here she was doing her very diverting and entertaining mixture of songs associated with her Broadway life, her Billboard chart toppers, her Soul and television material. Starting out with Stevie Wonder‘s “The Real Thing” (recorded by Sergio Mendes in the mid 70s) and instantly drawing attention, this was about to become a highly original set. What I like about her voice is that lighter inflection and the way she can belt out when necessary. And the arrangements of some of her songs are just amazingly sexy and soulful, like the one on “Lazy Afternoon”, where both Carmen Ruby Floyd and Shelley Thomas excelled on backup vocals. After “Dreamin'”, another soul-drenched tune from her 1988 Grammy Award-winning “The Right Stuff” album, she turned to the Pocahontas Oscar/Grammy/Golden Globe winner “Colors Of The Wind” and it was with the ballads where I thought that it really helps to be on the Broadway stage so often because she could put that little oomph and finesse into those songs, like on “Bill”.

Carmen did an exceptionally well-executed “Creole Love Song” as her solo spot, full of drama and wit and even operatic nuances at times. And talk about the band: Rob Mathes as musical director, Henry Hey on keys (he has worked with just about everyone from David Bowie to Chris Botti), Keith Robinson on guitar (still have his debut LP “Perfect Love” from 1986 at home), Al Caldwell on bass (Stanley Turrentine, John Hicks), or JT Lewis on drums (Phyllis Hyman, Lena Horne, Whitney Houston) all supported in grand style, except for some parts where the Roland and Yamaha keyboards were too much in the foreground and where the sound became too artificial and schmaltzy. But it was Vanessa who garnered the most attention (and does she look fabulous), especially on those numbers where she could let it all out, like on the Isley’s “Work To Do” or on a zesty version of “Peel Me A Grape”.

So a show which includes both Sondheim (a most delicate “Losing My Mind/Not A Day Goes By”) and Babyface (the encore “Betcha Never” didn’t really suit her that well), combined with this multifaceted singer, adds up to a highly entertaining performance. I really enjoyed this 90-minute set. And yes, she also did “Save The Best For Last”, but that particular song never really grabbed me.

It was too early to go home so I took a downtown train and got off after two stops to check out the late set at Birdland where Stacey Kent was performing songs from her recently released “Tenderly” album. I had interviewd her earlier that day and the way this album came about with legendary Brazilian artist Roberto Menescal was simply sweet. In the end it was him who chose almost all of the tracks and he always wanted to play the American Songbook and never had the chance to do that before. And so this set was one of the quietest and intimate programmes you would get. It was calming, soothing and healing in a way to hear her doing Jobim’s “Estrada Do Sol” or “If I’m Lucky” with her signature high-pitched and breezy voice. She just can’t do no wrong I guess. Her “This Happy Madness” summed it all up: that special melange of melancholy and optimism that she has inherited for herself, often works wonders. And Jim Tomlinson, her saxophone-playing husband, had more than one Zoot Sims/Stan Getz moment.

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