Jazz at the Bowl is getting mighty good at putting together tributes. Like last summer’s “To Ella With Love,” “A Tribute to Miss Peggy Lee” flowed like a dream — superbly paced, each singer performing one song before giving way to the next vocalist, a single band of experts backing them, with reminiscences and videos serving as connecting tissue. It was a carefully sequenced show, with some emotional depth for those who remember Lee and those who didn’t have the chance.
Miss Peggy Lee — that’s how she wanted to be billed — was a paradox, a study in cool and subtlety who could radiate sensual heat through a Scandinavian reserve. While she had a smash hit as late as 1969 — the sublime “Is That All There Is,” which oddly got lots of airplay on top 40 radio — she always belonged to an earlier, now nearly extinct era of show business, which this tribute definitely reflected.
The organizers reached deep into their Rolodexes for some sterling serial hitmakers who don’t receive much exposure in the 21st century. Petula Clark was perfectly comfortable with Lee’s Afro-Cuban-accented treatment of “Heart” (authentic right down to the chanted “corazons” from the band), as was Nancy Sinatra in the understated delivery of “He’s a Tramp.” Rita Coolidge had a minor hit with “Fever” early in her career, and she performed it with the sultry restraint with which Lee stamped the tune. For Jack Jones, the model for his “Well Alright, OK, You Win” remained Joe Williams.
There was balance, too, in the singers’ entries — most got two numbers, often a ballad and an uptempo tune (Jane Monheit received three, including a vocal treatment of “Samba de Orpheus”). None provided more contrast than Maureen McGovern, the romantic balladeer in “The Folks Who Live on the Hill” giving way to the belter who delivered “Come Back to Me.”
The superb, swinging rhythm section was Peggy’s own: John Pisano on guitar; pianist Mike Renzi; Jay Leonhart on bass; and drummer Grady Tate, who got to display his underrated pipes with Jolie Jones in “Angels on Your Pillow.”
In the end, though, “Is That All There Is” was entrusted to Miss Peggy Lee herself, via a television video. That record, and her composed presence on the big screens, cast the deepest spell of the night.