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A `Songbook' to remember

Pizzarelli's ambitious Bowl program of beloved 20th century tunes really pays off.

July 21, 2006|Don Heckman | Special to The Times

The choice of "American Jazz Songbook" as the title for Wednesday's concert at the Hollywood Bowl with John Pizzarelli, Kurt Elling, Bill Henderson, Annie Ross and Tierney Sutton was right on target.

That extraordinary collection of material written by Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, the Gershwins, Rodgers and Hart et al and known as the Great American Songbook has always had an intimate relationship with jazz. And the halcyon periods of creativity for both was roughly from the '20s to the '50s.

Add to that a stellar big band with Pizzarelli's quartet, and all the pieces seemed to be in place for an evening of prime entertainment.

The best-laid plans oft go awry, of course, but not this time. From start to finish, this was a performance that succeeded in every possible fashion.

Start with Pizzarelli, whose extraordinary musical talents are matched by a wry humor, a quick wit and an easygoing manner. As the show's musical director, the singer-guitarist brought all the elements together superbly, while introducing the other singers, cracking a few jokes and occasionally tossing jibes back and forth with the equally witty Elling. Although he claimed far too little performance space for himself, Pizzarelli's one significant solo outing -- the marvelous "Baby Medley" (featuring a delightful take on Bobby Troup's "Baby, Baby All the Time") -- nearly stole the show.

That's not to take away from the others, each of whom offered at least one impressive interpretation. Ross' voice may not be what it was when she was soaring through vocalese with Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, but her phrasing, her interpretive powers and her ability to sell a song are undimmed. Her version of Singer and Zaret's "One Meat Ball" was poignant and hilarious, and she brought the right touch of world-weary sadness (and the rarely heard correct pronunciation of distingue) to Billy Strayhorn's "Lush Life."

Henderson was brisk and swinging on Mercer and Arlen's "That Old Black Magic" and darkly lyrical on Strayhorn's "Daydream." Sutton added sardonic sophistication to Billy Barnes' "Something Cool." The ever-versatile Elling did a Frank Sinatra simulation on Dubin & Warren's "I Only Have Eyes for You" before displaying his trademark scat skills in a duet with Pizzarelli on Jon Hendricks' "Cloudburst."

Adding spice with their powerful backing, the big band -- featuring solos from Tom Scott, Bob Sheppard, Andy Martin and others -- topped off a superb evening, affirming the still-vibrant marriage between jazz and the Great American Songbook.

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