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JAZZ REVIEW : McCORKLE AT CINEGRILLE WITH HER CLASSIC SONGS

September 25, 1987|DON HECKMAN

Herewith a warning: Susannah McCorkle already has done two shows at the Hollywood Roosevelt's Cinegrill. Only six more nights remain to see and hear one of the country's finest performers of classic American song.

In her opening Thursday night, McCorkle quickly made it clear that she is not a singer who takes the easy path. Starting with a rapid-fire rendition of "That's Entertainment," she immediately demonstrated her versatility by easing smoothly into Oscar Brown, Jr.'s slangy "Call of the City" and followed with Rupert Holmes' plaintive "The People That You Never Get to Love."

A light-stepping romp through "Cheek to Cheek" (one that Fred Astaire would surely have loved) was followed by a ballad-style reading of Harold Arlen and E. Y. Harburg's "If I Only Had a Heart" (from "The Wizard of Oz") that brought a startlingly new perspective to the familiar lyrics.

McCorkle's burry contralto voice had the warmth and familiarity of an old friend's greeting, yet nothing that she did was cute or cloying or superficial. Every song--from the bossa nova rhythms of "Triste" to a 3/4 version of "There's No Business Like Show Business," from up-tempo jazz to lyric-rich show tunes--was rich with multi-dimensional layers of meaning.

McCorkle's phrasing, especially in pieces like the King Pleasure variation on "All of Me" and a floating "At Long Last Love" was clearly jazz-inflected, but not necessarily blues-based or instrumentally styled. Her music--despite its great improvisational strength--owes more to Lena Horne and Mabel Mercer than to Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan. Like the former two great ladies, McCorkle never shortchanges a lyric or forgets that songs are among music's most compelling ways to tell stories.

McCorkle received subtle, but intensely supportive backing from pianist Tom Garvin and bassist Scott Colley. She will sing two sets at the Cinegrill tonight and Saturday at 9 and 11 p.m. She also appears Wednesday and Thursday at 9 and next Friday and Oct. 3 at 9 and 11 p.m.

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