The jazz community has largely skirted the legacy of Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim, with the possible exception of “Send in the Clowns.” But there are two adventurous musicians who have dared to correct this oversight: guitarist Oscar Castro-Neves, who produced the Sondheim CD “Color and Light” for Sony in 1995, and pianist Tony Trotter, who turned out several jazz interpretations of Sondheim scores for Varese Sarabande in the late ’90s. It is thus no surprise to find them as the creative consultants for “Sondheim and Jazz — Side by Side” at Carnegie Hall. Unfortunately, Trotter was indisposed due to recent surgery, but his concept proved to be a distinctive exploration of the breadth and brilliance of Sondheim’s extraordinary legacy.
After the usually haunting melody that bathes its listener in luxurious colors comes the challenge to explore the cleverly constructed changes of Sondheim’s chord structure. The inspired assemblage of jazz vocalists and musicians masterfully rose to the occasion. It really matters little that the songs are not comfortably suited to uptempo. Simply put, Sondheim doesn’t swing, and that’s just fine. The word rhythmic may often apply here, as in Marian McPartland’s jaunty take on “Old Friends,” but what remains is the haunting psychological depth of his texts and those sublimely beautiful melodic strains.
The impressive gathering of performers embraced a Broadway songbook that is both varied and complex, one that offers provocative and daunting challenges for the musicians. Jackie Cain and Roy Kral, the durable duo of a half-century of sublime musicianship, opened with their distinctive airy flights for “Love Is in the Air,” a wistful “Not a Day Goes By” and a sweet reprise of early Sondheim, “So Many People,” from “Saturday Night.” The show derailed prior to its 1955 debut and didn’t surface until 1999.
Cain’s voice of crystal purity also blended sublimely with Maureen McGovern’s for “Every Day a Little Death.”
McGovern sang “Sooner or Later” (from the film “Dick Tracy”) with the accustomed vocal brio of her plaintively sweet soprano, and while her haunting take on “Anyone Can Whistle” is more Broadway than Birdland, it still drew whistles and stomps from the patrons at concert’s end.
Nnenna Freelon brought a blend of sweet syncopation with a bossa edge to “Children Will Listen,” from “Into the Woods.”
Lea DeLaria’s edgy performance of “Losing My Mind” was uncomfortably dark, but the actress, who recently made her debut as a jazz singer with her Warner Bros. CD “Play It Cool,” sang “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” with a buoyantly cool and demonic scat arrangement.
Kurt Elling displayed remarkable vocal poise and color with “Sunday in the Park” and “Not While I’m Around.” Elling just keeps growing, and his freshly original approach to phrasing makes the listener lean forward and take note.
On the instrumental side, the always regal Marian McPartland invested “Pretty Woman” with a state of lyrical grace. Clarinetist Ken Peplowski (coming directly from the New Jersey Jazz Fest, where he played tenor sax to honor the memory of the late Zoot Sims) offered a gentle and lovely Benny Goodman take on “You Must Meet My Wife.”
No Sondheim concert would be complete without “Send in the Clowns,” and Castro-Neves filled the void with a richly sustained and colorful guitar solo.
Host for the event was actor Len Cariou, who starred in Broadway as “the demon barber of Fleet Street” in “Sweeney Todd,” for which he won a Tony. Cariou noted that when the composer was asked what he thought of his music addressed as a “jazz” concept, Sondheim replied, “I’d love to hear the melody just once!” A standing ovation from a capacity aud greeted the obviously pleased and grateful Sondheim.