When Grady Tate sits at the drums, a singer can relax, knowing that a more than functional timekeeper is governing the rhythm section. Having taken the seat behind Ella and Sarah and Lena, he understands the pulse-beat and needs of a singer. It comes as no surprise to many that Tate is also a fine singer himself, and at his Penthouse vocal debut at Lincoln Center, he sang some love songs with the kind of romantic finesse once associated with the likes of Johnny Hartman and Billy Eckstine.
A smooth baritone voice, with a lower edge like the great, afore- mentioned Mr. B., Tate crooned the Michel Legrand classic “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?,” which he has been singing for 35 years. The satiny texture of his pipes and the smoothly tender phrasing framed the lyrics handsomely.
Other tunes performed from his new Eight-Eights CD “All Love” included “My One and Only Love” and “My Funny Valentine.” Latter was set to an unusually light, funky beat. The tempo came as a surprise, but Tate turned the song into a jaunty and comfortable love letter.
For a swinging finale, Tate grabbed the classic Betty Roche bop vocal version of Billy Strayhorn’s “Take the ‘A’ Train.” The old Ellington signature tune really romped, and Tate nailed the unique Roche interpretation joyously.
Tate eased into an intimate encore with piano, sans rhythm section, of Strayhorn’s “Lush Life,” and lush it was, as Kenny Baron played to the song’s lyric lines. The Penthouse mix of “jazz and cocktails” couldn’t have been more seductive and satisfying.
Having Baron as an accompanist was a plus. The distinctively adept pianist has a subtle way of cradling the vocalist. He provided a certain calming balance and filled the room with colors while giving room for Tate to stretch out. And, oh yes, Baron did have his wonderfully fulfilling moment, as with a fiery solo on “Little Black Samba.”
Lizz Wright, the new gal on the block, has a bold grip on the jazz scene. The set focused on selections from her forthcoming Verve CD, due out in May. A soulful pop thrush with a keen jazz ear, Wright opened with the old Nat Cole classic “Nature Boy.” While the song was nicely phrased and melodically pure, she stretched out some wording that broke its inner rhyme.
Wright does a lot of her own silky comps, including “Burning Life” and “Fire.” Consequently, the program lacks an arc. Everything begins to sound the same, including the Nina Simone classic “End of the Affair.” Oscar Brown’s “Afro Blue” gave the program a little more pace and rhythmic structure but left one waiting for a little more excitement.
This is an attractive lady with a sweet presence and a sweet voice. More to come.