Taxi fares, gasoline and even the price of a gallon of milk recently have leaped to new heights. When Bobby Short made his debut in the posh confines of the Cafe Carlyle, the cover charge was a modest $3. That was 36 years ago, so it doesn’t come as much of a surprise to find it’s $75 to see Short open what has been announced as his final spring and fall engagements at the jewel in the crown of Gotham cabaret. But some things never change, and the ebullient entertainer remains at the top of his game: a formidable monarch of supper-club serenading, a musician whose vigorous piano technique accents his performance with fat, bold chords and an infectious buoyancy.
At 79, Short’s voice is dusted with a rusty and grainy edge, but there’s a rich belting strength at the ready when called for. His repertoire reveals a balance of ardent romanticism and earthy hot swing.
“Moments Like This,” by Burton Lane and Frank Loesser, recalls Maxine Sullivan and the 52nd Street jazz haunts of the late ’30s. Short captures the splendor of the moment with the kind of poetic grace rarely heard on the current cabaret circuit.
From a jaunty Fred Astaire turn with the Gershwins’ “High Hat” to the mandatory Cole Porter couplet — “Looking at You” and “Just One of Those Things” — the veteran saloon singer invests his repertoire with gravelly grandeur. With his impeccable diction, perfect poise and a warm bond with his audience, it comes as no surprise that Short remains a Big Apple treasure.
No Short set is complete without a nod to prolific lyricist Andy Razaf, who penned “Guess Who’s in Town,” introduced by Ethel Waters, as well as the jazz classic “Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good to You?” Razaf was a master of the bawdy blues that marked Harlem’s jazz age of the ’20s, and Short always champions his legacy.
The swiftly paced hour spent in Short’s company is enhanced by the accompaniment of a first-rate league of gentleman. Octogenarian trombonist Eddie Bert, reedmen Ken Peplowski and Loren Schoenberg, along with the pliant supportive bass of Frank Tate, swing magnificently on an instrumental serving of Ellingtoniana, “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” and “Merry Go Round.” Short prefaced the Duke Ellington segment with his own early vaudeville memories, recalling such acts as Buck & Bubbles, thrush Ivie Anderson and the Fletcher Henderson band.
Finale is Lil Green’s ardent blues declaration “Romance in the Dark” to which Short adds a teasing double coda that lifts the piece to an infectiously appealing plateau. It summons a standing ovation that is a rare sight on the club circuit.