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80 and in the groove

December 31, 2007|Don Heckman | Special to The Times

Veteran jazz vocalist Ernie Andrews was in rare form Saturday night at the Jazz Bakery. Celebrating his 80th birthday with a packed house of devotees, he clearly enjoyed every minute, pacing the stage in his inimitable strut, reminiscing, offering words of experience-honed wisdom and -- best of all -- displaying the full range of his remarkable storytelling vocal style.

His program of songs was far-ranging, their variety enhanced by Andrews' insistence upon placing his unique interpretive stamp on everything he sang.

"It Must Have Been Something I Dreamed Last Night," for example, usually done as a slow-dance ballad, surfaced as a hard-driving rhythm tune, solidly supported by Andrews' dependable backup band of saxophonist Rickey Woodard, pianist Art Hillary, bassist Richard Simon and drummer Frank Wilson. "I Can't Give You Anything But Love," another standard, received a full-out display of Andrews' powerful voice, as he sang most of it without benefit of a microphone.

Andrews was also quick with a quip, introducing "Our Love Is Here to Stay" with the comment, "Women love to hear love songs, even if you're lying." And a whimsical tune by Timmie Rogers, "If I Were You, I'd Love Me," stimulated the audience to join in the last three words of the chorus.

Reaching back into his own catalog, Andrews sang his 1953 hit, "Make Me a Present of You." Then, fully certifying his credentials as a blues singer, he captured the bebop clarity of Charlie Parker's "K.C. Blues" and transformed Miles Davis' "All Blues" into a vehicle for various other tunes, shivering the walls in pure blues shout style before whispering laid-back intimacies. At one point, he did an impressive sequence of impressions of Charles Brown, Jimmy Rushing, Ivy Anderson and Al Hibbler, perfectly hitting the mark on each.

The most fascinating tune, however, was Andrews' extraordinary rendering of James Taylor's "Fire and Rain." Singing it at a medium groove tempo, without really altering the melody or the lyrics, Andrews transformed it into a very different song, applying its elements to the experiences of his own life as an African American. Listening to it, one couldn't help but imagine an entire CD of similarly familiar singer-songwriter tunes reinterpreted by Andrews.

At one point in his birthday evening, Andrews noted, "It's been a wonderful dream and I've enjoyed the ride." For his listeners, it was a ride to share, and an amazing one at that.

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