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Jazz Review

Singer Laurel Masse Delivers an Evening to Remember

February 16, 2001|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Consider this a belated Valentine's card to singer Laurel Masse. How can you not fall in love with someone who brings such life and joy to every note that passes through her lips--who transforms even the most familiar songs into stunning new dramatic entities?

Masse's opening-night set Wednesday at the Cinegrill in the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel was simply one of the most musically compelling programs ever at that venue--or at most venues, for that matter. And one could only marvel at the fact that she is so little known beyond her visibility in the early '70s as one of the founding members of the Manhattan Transfer (she left the group in 1979).

Start with her program. It kicked off with Lerner & Loewe ("On the Street Where You Live"), moved on to Lennon & McCartney ("I Saw Him Standing There"), Randy Newman ("You Can Leave Your Hat On"), Duke Ellington ("I Got It Bad and That Ain't Good") and Willie Nelson ("Crazy") with Gabriel Faure and J.S. Bach thrown in for good measure.

OK, there are any number of versatile singers out there. But it's hard to think of any who could have done what Masse did with this material. She didn't just sing the songs, she lived them, and in doing so, she held the audience in such dramatic suspension that they had no choice but to live them with her.

Her version of Hoagy Carmichael's "Heart and Soul," which long ago seemed relegated to amateur piano duets, emerged as an intimately poignant ballad. Lennon & McCartney's "Norwegian Wood" drifted sensuously over a pedal ostinato from pianist Vinnie Martucci. "You Don't Know What Love Is," the Raye & de Paul ultimate torch song, and Ellington's "I Got It Bad" were delivered with a late-night, jazz-driven intensity that penetrated directly into the dark, tragic heart of the words and music.

Masse, a tall, slender woman dressed in a Valentine's Day red gown, was every bit as effective with whimsical numbers, rendering "You Can Leave Your Hat On" with a sardonic touch that would surely have pleased Newman.

As if all that wasn't enough, she also offered a gorgeous reading of Faure's art song "Le Secret" and then thoroughly affirmed her virtuosic abilities with an a cappella interpretation of the Minuet and Gigue from Bach's 1st Cello Suite. It would be hard to imagine anyone--except, possibly, Bobby McFerrin--who could have managed that sort of showcase performance, as the centerpiece of such a diverse program of music, with such magical ease.

Full credit should also be given to Martucci, whose spontaneous interaction with Masse was the foundation that supported her musical excursions. Together, they produced a program that should be heard by anyone who loves and values the sheer joy of musical creativity. To put it simply: Don't miss this one.

*

* Laurel Masse at the Cinegrill in the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, 7000 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. Tonight and Saturday at 8 p.m. $20 admission. Two-drink minimum. (323) 466-7000.

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