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Highlights of New York jazz, cabaret, and comedy
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Highlights of New York jazz, cabaret, and comedy

by E. Joyce Glasgow - SGN A&E Writer

I love the creative spirit I find in New York City. From grand halls to little nooks and crannies, one can go on a never-ending adventure into the performing arts scene and be constantly surprised and inspired by numerous and eclectic forms of self-expression.

Following are some of the artists who inspired me on my trips to New York in 2008 and 2009, along with some suggestions of places to go and people to see in 2010. With the state of the economy the way it is, attendance at most of these events or venues won't break the bank, and your dollars will be appreciated by small businesses and non-profits that are suffering through the downturn.

A trip to New York isn't complete without at least one visit to the Metropolitan Room (www.metropolitanroom.com), which recently celebrated its third anniversary and is the city's premiere destination for cabaret performances. The Metropolitan is resplendent with professional, sophisticated artists who will make you long for a similar cabaret venue in Seattle. Here are some of the performers to look out for when they play the Metropolitan Room:

The legendary jazz vocalist Annie Ross has a regular weekly gig here on Tuesdays. British vocalist Barb Jungr, popular across the pond and in Australia, has been making a splash in New York with her appearances at the Met, and won a 2009 Nightlife Award. Her unique and unusual choices of material and her powerfully emotional interpretations of songs by Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley and Jacque Brel enrapture her audiences, and she is one of the best cabaret performers around. Baby Jane Dexter is a New York cabaret institution with a huge following, and it is clear to see why. She has just completed a successful run of her new show at the Met. Dexter's generosity of spirit, her humor and her big, deep voice and delivery of a diverse array of material from the jazz, pop and rock worlds make her a real crowd-pleaser. When she's on stage, she becomes the queen of the room. Dexter just won a richly deserved 2010 Nightlife Award for outstanding cabaret vocalist in January. Luba Mason's vocals were smooth and sleek in a set I caught of hers with Kate Taylor (sister of James and Livingston). Her band and guests relaxed the audience with her pop/country/folk offerings. Young vocalist Tamela D'Amico impressed with her sunny manner and great band arrangements.

On the drag artist front, I caught two performers who were incredibly funny: Hedda Lettuce and Sinthea Starr. Hedda Lettuce is an outrageous, sexy drag singer/comedian who you can see quite regularly at the Metropolitan. She has wit, green hair, and glittering costumes, and muses with the audience about lots of things - including her grandmother Bedda Lettuce and Eastern European cousin Romaine Lettuce. Hedda Lettuce is very entertaining. I was present for the first performance at the Metropolitan Room of Joel Vig's alter ego, Sinthea Starr. Sinthea had the audience in stitches with her grandiose ramblings, anecdotes and songs about being a Hollywood film star, her numerous lovers, and name-dropping famous celebrities profusely. In real life, Vig actually does run in those circles. Actors Cliff Robertson and Tammy Grimes were both in the audience to cheer Vig on, and he was very close to the late Kitty Carlisle Hart, who he used to go on cruises with. Joel Vig is a versatile actor, having recently played six quick-change character roles in the musical Hairspray for his Broadway debut at age 50. I most recently heard the gracious and charming performer Eileen Fulton at the Met, who just retired from her 50-year role on the television soap opera As the World Turns. Every first Friday of the month, the Metropolitan Room features a series called Metro Jam, hosted by cabaret vocalist Jenna Esposito, which is an open mic for vocalists. Show up with your music and sign up. An instrumental back-up trio is provided.

Another wonderful drag performer is Richard Skipper, brilliantly playing his friend, Carol Channing, to the hilt, complete with singing and dancing boys, an instrumental combo, and giant "diamond" rings which he throws out to the audience intermittently during the show. His love and respect for Channing shows through in his performance, which is warm, very funny and elegant. His comic timing is superb. I saw Skipper at the off-Off Broadway Wings Theatre Company (www.wingstheatre.com) in Greenwich Village, which for years has had a Gay play series. Keep your eyes open for what's next on their series of plays in 2010. Skipper currently co-hosts Wednesday Cabaret Night at the Iguana with Dana Lorge, a cabaret singers' showcase each week at the Iguana Restaurant (www.iguananyc.com) in midtown Manhattan. This weekly event is a lot of fun.

The elegant but casual Birdland (www.birdlandjazz.com) is an exciting destination and a hub for both jazz and cabaret. This past year, I experienced memorable performances there by one of my favorite jazz vocalists, the musically and lyrically adventurous Kurt Elling, whose sets are always new and different. Elling and saxophonist Ernie Watts were giving the audience a preview of Elling's new tribute to vocalist Johnny Hartman entitled Dedicated to You, which now has recently been released on CD. Paquito D' Rivera and his Latin Quintet played pieces from his Grammy-winning CD Funk Tango, featuring hot percussion and intriguing arrangements of pieces, including "Caravan" and "There Will Never Be Another You." The incomparable Phoebe Snow, in as rich of voice as always, deftly performed new tunes as well as old favorites, including "Poetry Man" and an incredibly powerful version of Janis Joplin's "Piece of My Heart." Recently I heard one of my favorite jazz groups, Oregon, at Birdland, the Maria Schneider Orchestra and an historic reuniting of M'Boom percussion ensemble with the World Saxophone Quartet.

The cabaret side of Birdland draws me more and more, especially for its weekly "extreme" open mic for vocalists and songwriters. Jim Caruso's "Cast Party" (www.castpartynyc.com) on Monday nights is hosted by the witty, energetic, and impish Jim Caruso (once Liza Minnelli's backup singer). Caruso keeps the night humming at an upbeat and entertaining pace - no slow ballads, please. It is an evening filled with merriment, camaraderie and a wonderful sense of community as singers and composers from every genre of music - especially Broadway singers - show up for their turn at a song, which can often be hilarious. The audience is there to support and enjoy the singers, so the whole thing is lots of fun and you never know who is going to show up to sing or listen, since it is held on the dark night for Broadway plays. Stars, including Tony Bennett, Liza Minnelli, Michael Feinstein, Martin Short, and others pop up in the audience or on stage. When I'm around New York, I'm starting to get a jones for the Cast Party and wonder what I'm missing if I can't make it. I highly recommend Cast Party when you are next in New York. It is an inexpensive evening and a really great time.

Birdland has an earlier evening series on Mondays, before the open mic, called Broadway at Birdland, which is an opportunity for audiences to hear sets by some of the great performers and composers in New York. I heard a wonderful cabaret show with Tony Award-winning, 2010 Nightlife Award-winning actress and vocalist Christine Ebersole in a great duo with pianist/composer/singer Billy Stritch. Composer Scott Alan debuted and celebrated his new compositions, featuring talented Broadway actors/singers, including Jonathan Groff (Spring Awakening) and Shoshana Bean (Wicked). Emotionally powerful vocalist/ Actress Capathia Jenkins (Caroline or Change) played a moving set in a duo with her musical collaborator, composer/instrumentalist/vocalist Louis Rosen. Birdland is a really happening place and one of my favorite venues in New York - not to be missed!

Another great open mic is held at the Laurie Beechman Theatre (www.beechmantheatre.com) every Friday night. The "After Party" is hosted by the gregarious, cherubic cabaret vocalist and 2009 Nightlife Award-winning Brandon Cutrell, and is one of the most fun, easy and casual open mics of all. You can bring your own music or choose a piece from numerous songbooks available on top of the piano. Ray Fellman graciously accompanies singers on piano. There is no cover charge or minimum. Try the truffle macaroni and cheese; it's delicious! The scene here is tres Gay. Check it out.

There's nothing like a big jazz band filled with seasoned musicians playing intelligent and exciting arrangements. I was able to hear three such bands while in New York. The first two were part of a big band festival at The Blue Note (www.bluenote.net). The Dizzy Gillespie All Star Big Band has been together for years. The sound of this band is rich, full, crystalline and confident, and the band has some members who are jazz legends and NEA Jazz Masters. Trombonist Slide Hampton conducts, and players including Jimmy Heath, James Moody and Claudio Roditi make this band a joy to listen to. Their offerings included pieces by Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk. Lovely Italian vocalist Roberta Gambarini was featured with the band on songs including "Lover Come Back to Me." The Charles Tolliver Big Band really knocked me out. This band is more on the adventurous side, playing intriguing compositions/arrangements by trumpeter/conductor Tolliver, and what I really love is that the musicians fly fearlessly into new territory in their improvised solos.

The third big band that I had a chance to hear was the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, which has been playing at the 70-year-old jazz club The Village Vanguard (www.villagevanguard.com) every Monday night for 34 years. This Grammy-nominated band is terrific, with fabulous, solid players, and I was lucky to be there when they were recording their live album, Monday Night Live at the Village Vanguard. Another night at the Vanguard I heard the wonderful, lyrical, and Latin-flavored music of Venezuelan pianist Ed Simon and his trio with Brian Blade on drums and John Pattitucci on bass. Simon has also been a mainstay in the Horizon Band with saxophonist Bobby Watson, which is where I first heard him and became a fan years ago. Another memorable performance at the Vanguard was one of my favorite pianists, Fred Hersch, and his trio, playing beautiful and sensitive material. The proprietress of the Village Vanguard, Lorraine Gordon, now in her mid-80s, oversees the club six nights a week.

It was a privilege to hear legendary jazz harmonica player Toots Thielmans as special guest to superb pianist Kenny Werner and his trio at the jazz club Iridium (www.iridiumjazzclub.com). Theilmans joined the trio for favorite songs, including, "Autumn Leaves" and a George Gershwin tribute of "I Loves You Porgy" and "Summertime." I recently heard Carol Sudhalter and the Astoria Big Band performing beautifully arranged jazz tunes and the terrifically entertaining Terese Genneco and her Little Big Band, who play once a month at Iridium. Genneco loves to perform "Rat Pack" songs and does a wonderful job with songs by Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, and refers to herself as "the white, Lesbian Sammy Davis, Jr."

A great place to hang out and hear reliably fabulous music is at the 55 Bar (www.55bar.com). This historic neighborhood bar on Christopher St. is casual, friendly and inexpensive, and has been here forever and represents the old feeling of Greenwich Village before creeping gentrification. I heard the great jazz vocalist/composer/New School music instructor Katie Bull here with her group. Bull is a gifted improviser and entertainer. I heard the joyful, funky, urban jazz/ folk singer/composer/guitarist K.J. Denhert and her band and guest artists celebrating her 10th anniversary of playing at the 55 Bar. It was an amazing and exciting evening of high-energy, rhythmical, toe-tapping music. Recently I heard wonderful jazz vocalist, Kendra Shank, formerly of Seattle, singing lovely tunes with her band at 55 Bar.

If you ever have an opportunity to attend a concert or other event in the Allen Room, an incredible performance space at Jazz at Lincoln Center (www.jalc.org), you absolutely must. This beautiful, wooden-floored, high-ceilinged room has a sweeping wall of glass overlooking a stunning vista of Columbus Circle, Central Park and neighborhood skyscrapers and apartment buildings. The romance of the week of Valentine's Day back in 2008 was enhanced by hearing jazz singer Kurt Elling and his trio in a memorable performance with special guest, Portland, Oregon-based jazz vocalist Nancy King, performing in front of the glass wall with that breathtaking view as a backdrop. Elling is my favorite male jazz singer performing these days. He sang "Easy Living," "Beware My Foolish Heart," his famous vocalized version of "Body and Soul," based on a tenor sax solo by Dexter Gordon, as well as other pieces including material from his CD, the fabulous Night Moves. King sang a reflective and memorable version of Michel LeGrand's "Once Upon a Summertime," with Elling's pianist and musical collaborator, Laurence Hobgood. Elling and King got together on some superb duets, including "Nature Boy," "What's New," and an encore of "Stardust." Metropolitan Opera diva and jazz enthusiast Renée Fleming was in the audience that night. I returned again in 2009 to the Allen Room for Kurt Elling's live recording of his new CD, Dedicated to You, with his trio, Ernie Watts and the Ethel String Quartet. It was a magical evening.

Another gorgeous room at Jazz at Lincoln Center is Dizzy's Club Coca Cola, across the hall from the Allen Room, where you can enjoy jazz nightly with the same stunning view through the windows behind the performers. I heard Freddy Cole and his quintet at Dizzy's. Cole, a very dapper gentleman, crooned in a voice as smooth as honey, giving his distinctive interpretation to songs including "Easy Living" and "Them There Eyes." On another occasion, I heard Randy Weston and his African Spirits band, comprised of seasoned professionals. Weston is a powerful pianist and the music was full of life. Most recently I heard fabulous vibraphonist, Joe Locke and his Quintet, with Kenny Washington on vocals.

The Rose Theater is another beautiful venue at Jazz at Lincoln Center, where the 2010 NEA Jazz Masters awards ceremony and concert were held in January.

Are you a fan of Bjork? Then you might really enjoy the Bjorkestra. Yes, this is a big jazz band that is dedicated to the music of Bjork, and plays original material, too. The pieces have great arrangements and the band and singer are fun. I heard them in a room filled with Bjork fans at the Jazz Standard (www.jazzstandard.net), another jazz club that regularly has great acts. I saw the New York Voices there, too, in a very memorable performance. The New York Voices are talented singers and fabulous vocal arrangers. Their music is uplifting and lovely to listen to. I recently heard wonderful South African jazz pianist Abdullah Ibrahim do a rare solo piano performance at the Jazz Standard, which was hypnotic, spiritual and deeply introspective.

For comedy, check out the Gotham Comedy Club (www.gothamcomedyclub.com) for some of the best standup comedians. Of particular note is the always hilarious "Homo Comicus," a monthly night of Gay and Lesbian comedy featuring wonderful comics including the terrific Marion Grodin, Judy Gold, and Hedda Lettuce.

The Cornelia Street Café (www.corneliastreetcafe.com) features amazing musicians nightly as well as poetry readings. Be sure to check out David Amram and his band, who perform the first Monday of every month. Amram's life and career have spanned many worlds, from being part of the beat poets' circle with Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg and playing jazz with Dizzy Gillespie to conducting and composing for orchestras around the world, writing scores for films and plays, writing books, and being a part of the folk and world music scenes. Amram is a true Renaissance man, and will turn 80 next year. Mazel tov!

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