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The East Side Sessions

Lillias White – A lot of my more cynical colleagues may grumble that singers in the worlds of both jazz and Broadway ain’t what they used to be – and indeed, to watch what passes for talent in the pop mainstream and on American Idol is to despair. However, I have the opposite problem. There are so many great singers out there, in both fields, that to stand out you have not only be much better than good, you have to have something especially distinctive.

Lillias White is such a singer. Although the traditionally opposed fields of jazz and Broadway are coming closer and closer together, someone who can do both as well as Ms. White is still very rare. Bringing together desparate fields may be her specialty. In fact, in the jazz area alone, singers who can interpret a ballad soulfully, and really make you feel the meaning of the words and music, and then turn around and scat their heads off, are rare. That she can also sing showtunes convincingly, in the great tradition of Merman and Martin, makes her all the more special.

The first fact that inevitably pops up regarding Lillias White is that she won a Tony Award for her performance in The Life, in 1998. That she appeared in a Cy Coleman show already put her at the halfway mark to becoming a jazz artist, since Coleman is the jazziest of the great Broadway composers of roughly contemporary vintage – his music has as much in common with Benny Golson or Jimmy Heath as it does with Jerry Herman or Stephen Sondheim. And The Life was even jazzier than usual, an attempt to address the real world with a sound hipper and more contemporary than most traditional Broadway musicals. Lillias and The Life – and Cy Coleman’s music in general – were a perfect fit. Its not surprising that she’s been involved in other Broadway and film musical productions that combine traditional show music with other forms, like the Caribbean rhythms of Once On This Island and the Gospel-pop of Disney’s Hercules (one of the last great traditional cartoon features and the current Broadway musical Fela)

 When producer Howard Leder heard her on Broadway, he instantly realized that she could work well in a classic jazz setting. “The first thing I thought,” he remembers, “is that she really should be surrounded by the best players around, that she deserved that opportunity.” The core group they chose is a four-piece rhythm section including guitar, played by Phil Hamilton, best known for his work with Luther Vandross. They recruited two world-class pianists who don’t work with singers as much as they should, Hilton Ruiz and Geri Allen, bassist Peter Washington, who has gained immeasurable experience playing The Great American Songbook as a long-standing member of The Bill Charlap Trio, and perhaps the singers’ best friend, drummer Grady Tate (who lends his especially expert brush-work on “That’s All”).

Between The Life’s “We Had A Dream” and City Of Angels’s “With Every Breath I Take,” Cy Coleman has also written some of the greatest torch songs of the the last 40 years. White shows how jazz and Broadway can serve each other: she makes you really feel these two songs of heartbreak and disillusionment, and, romantic obsession, in a way that no one else can. “With Every Breath I Take” has been done by some contemporary singers – not nearly enough though, considering what a great song it is – but Ms. White is probably the first to do it as a samba, for which she and Mr. Leder brought in the great latin percussionist Romero.

The mood gets up and swinging for “My Gentleman Friend” by Arnold Horwitt and Richard Lewine (from a 1948 revue called Make Mine Manhattan), and long associated with Blossom Dearie. Where Dearie’s famous version is light and lilting, Ms. White’s is, shall we say, a bit more friendly. Guitarist Phil Hamilton gets his best solo of the date here, and need I say that I approve of the trend? “That’s All,” which by coincidence is by Bob Haymes, a longtime friend of Ms. Dearie, is optimistic but slow, and Ms. White reminds us that all such numbers, upbeat in mood but not always in tempo, are fundamentally Gospel songs. She brings to it the same depth of feeling normally reserved, well, not necessarily in a prayer, but in an offering of some sorts to The Allmighty. (By another coincidence, both Haymes and Lewine had famous older relatives: the first is the brother of crooner Dick Haymes, the second is the cousin of Richard Rodgers.)

 “Gentleman Friend” was also recorded by Carmen McRae, and two tunes by jazz pianists, Theolonious Monk’s

“Well You Needn’t” and Roger Kellaway’s “I Have The Feeling I’ve Been Here Before,” are also closely associated with her. Ms. White doesn’t sound anything like McRae – Lillias’s voice is soft and rounder, whereas Carmen’s was more angular. But she reminds me of the late McRae in that both singers support the belief that musical and lyrical interpretative values don’t have to contradict each other, not a presumption to be taken for granted in any musical genre. White also has that same conviction, and the same in-your-face aggression – as serious as your life – that was Carmen’s stock-in-trade.

 “Well You Needn’t,” which is a number Ms. White has long included in her night club sets is inspired by a meeting of a great singer and great pianist: Betty Carter and Geri Allen, the latter called in for this recording.

Before and since the Richard Rodgers Centennial in 2002 I noticed that more and more jazz singers are, following Blossom Dearie’s example, doing “Surrey With The Fringe On Top” – while the surrey hasn’t slowed down any, Ms. White bucks the trend with Oklahoma’s Act One opener, “Oh What A Beautiful Morning,” which far fewer jazz singers (Ray Charles excepted) have done, perhaps put off by the old fashioned waltz-iness of it all. It opens memorably, with Grady Tate whistling over Hamilton’s guitar. When it gets to the refrain, it changes tempo several times, detours through scat episodes and a spontaneous quote from “Banana Boat Song,” retaining some feeling of the 3/4 but otherwise speeding up and slowing down in a way the defies predictability.

“Besame Mucho” is a complete surprise. This is a famous Mexican song, and she sings it in Spanish and English, slowly and soulfully, full of hope and yearning but the groove is more soul than Latin, or, more accurately a blend of the two. It’s normally done with sharp rhumba accents, but Lillias’s treatment is smooth and sexy. “I’ve heard that song twenty-thousand times over the years,” said pianist Hilton Ruiz, who, prior to and since his passing, is as well known in Latin music circles as he is in the jazz world, “and I have never heard it sound better than this.”

It’s hard to believe, given Lillias’s many appearances in Broadway theatres and clubs like Feinstein’s and The Jazz Standard, that this is her first jazz album. Yet when, in “Besame Mucho,” she sings about hearing “music divine,” there’s no doubt that these words describe her own singing as well.

 – Will Friedwald, music critic

Wall Street Journal

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