Exactly three years have passed since Estelle Reiner, then a virtual newcomer, was reviewed here. At that time there was the curiosity value of a housewife converted to professional singing after 40 years of marriage to a famous actor-director. Today, no explanations or excuses need be offered; the years of honing a craft she had always loved but never practiced have paid off.
At the Gardenia in Hollywood, where she has worked once a week for most of the past year (she goes on summer hiatus after Wednesday's gig), Reiner reveals the same grainy, assiduous timbre on the vintage songs, from "Gee, Baby, Ain't I Good to You" to a couple of blues by Helen Humes and Koko Taylor. The concept of a white woman of her age singing black material may be disconcerting in theory, yet Reiner, who knew Harlem in the glory days of the Apollo and Smalls Paradise, brings to these songs a conviction, a broad range and a sense of humor that allay criticism.
Surprisingly, she changes her tonal quality to instill in a ballad such as George Gershwin's "Stairway to Paradise" a clean, emotional purity. Her repertoire maintains an unusual balance between vintage pop standards--to many of which she adds the seldom-heard verses--and strongly jazz-inspired works. Her accent never lapses into phony ethnic effects: for every hint of Harlem there is a nuance from the Bronx.