Traditionally, the annual JVC Jazz Festival opened the season with Mel Torme, a jazz singer of the first order. Well, times have changed since the Velvet Fog died, and high-profile jazz singers appear to be in short supply. With a focus on gate receipts, this year’s fest kicked off a 10-day, 30-concert-plus sked with cabaret crooner Michael Feinstein, Broadway diva Elaine Stritch and a folksy Arab-Jewish octet. It turned out to be a comfortable evening of mixed metaphors, with nary a hint of jazz, unless one counts Feinstein on bended knee emulating Al Jolson, the “jazz singer,” bellowing “Swanee.”
Feinstein displays a firm and flexible light baritone, smooth sophisticated charm and an elfin sense of humor. On the concert stage, he prefers to perform as a standup singer, leaving keyboard duties to former Rosemary Clooney sideman John Oddo.
Feinstein has come a long way since his Algonquin debut at the hallowed Oak Room in 1986, taking the art of saloon singing to the nation’s great concert halls. Seldom straying from familiar Tin Pan Alley territory, Feinstein sang selections from the classic American song repertoire, repped by the likes of Harold Arlen, Frank Loesser, Irving Berlin and the Gershwins.
What distinguished his performance from his intimate club appearances was the presence of a sprawling 70-piece orchestra, alternately providing a velvety cushion of strings and the big bite of a crisp brass section. Conductor Alan Broadbent provided richly tailored new arrangements of the standards; “Stormy Weather,” in particular, was framed in a lushly enveloping setting. “I Love a Piano,” a Feinstein staple, was bigger and brassier than ever before, with the orchestra pushing the singer to a heightened swinging plateau. (The concert coincided with the release of the singer’s new Concord CD with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.)
Feinstein has exhumed one of the great Manhattan anthems, “Every Street’s a Boulevard in Old New York,” a mayoral salute to the Gotham of Jimmy Walker, from the 1953 Jule Styne tuner “Hazel Flagg.” In a warming bow to Ol’ Blue Eyes, who frequently graced the Carnegie Hall stage, Feinstein sang “Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out to Dry,” the definitive torch tune by Styne and Sammy Cahn and a teary Sinatra classic.
The remarkable gift one receives from a Feinstein performance is that verses, second choruses and previously unpublished lyrics often are revealed. That’s always a decided joy.
Feinstein rendered warming acknowledgements to the presence in the house of songwriters Adolph Green, Betty Comden, Jerry Herman and 90-year-old Jack Lawrence (“Tenderly”). For Herman, Feinstein gushingly proclaimed “I Won’t Send Roses” his personal fave. Feinstein dedicated the Dietz-Schwartz ballad “By Myself” to Comden and Green, who wrote the screenplay for “The Bandwagon,” which the singer considers the best film musical ever made.
Feinstein’s special guest was Elaine Stritch, hot on the heels of her acclaimed Tony-winning solo Broadway turn. Stritch sang the stripteaser’s lament “I Wanna Get Married,” a song introduced by Ziegfeld Follies vet Gertrude Niesen in the 1944 show “Follow the Girls.” With a gutsy deadpan delivery, she mined the droll, insinuating wisdom of the girl who wanted to be “confetti’d and riced.” Stritch joined the host for a playful Sondheim duet of “Side by Side by Side” and “Old Friends.” It was a cozy union and a comforting festival welcome.