Some things never change. Yes, the cover charge has been raised from $3 to $75 over the years, but the man at the piano remains at the top of his game. He is Bobby Short, cabaret’s keeper of the flame, and the Cafe Carlyle has been his throne room for 35 years.
At 76, Short continues to display vigorous piano technique, and he still sings with his trademark gravelly grandeur. The ebullient piper brings sophisticated clarity to a lyric, and his suave, savvy demeanor has set the standard for Gotham’s classy piano bars and the select club of smart saloon performers who have followed.
Short’s repertoire is always uniquely varied, and abundant with vintage musical gems and rare rediscovered songs. Where else in Manhattan could one find “Guess Who’s in Town?,” an Andy Razaf-J.C. Johnson tune that Ethel Waters introduced 75 years ago? And there is even a brief campy bow to Stephen Foster with “De Camptown Races.” And why not? After all, wasn’t Foster the father of the popular American song? The tune received fame through the art of the minstrel show and raised the level of popular song in the mid-19th century.
No Short performance is complete without a Cole Porter tune or two, and opening night was no exception, with “Looking at You,” written for a youthful, debonair Clifton Webb, and that ever-familiar “trip to the moon on gossamer wings,” “Just One of Those Things.”
Few singers can bring to the blues the kind of slick sophistication Short brings to “Empty Bed Blues.” The phrase “sweet and low-down” says it all. Short’s hot band, composed of top jazz musicians, swings hard behind the singer and “Ring Dem Bells” serves as an exuberantly buoyant instrumental serving of Ellingtonia.