Michael Feinstein: The Enchanting Lena Horne

Michael Feinstein

 

 

By Ron Fassler

 

Backed by a superb 17-piece band, Michael Feinstein was at his customary best last night, in the first of two evenings being presented at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s glorious Appel Room, devoted to the song chanteuse Lena Horne. Offering wonderful stories, many of them told to him by Horne’s friends (and now friends of Feinstein’s himself), lent a personal touch that went a long way towards bringing Horne’s special magic to the stage.

I was fortunate enough to have seen the career-transforming Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music, that she brought to Broadway in 1981 (when she was still an astoundingly beautiful and sexy sixty-four years-old). Originally scheduled for a short, limited engagement at the Nederlander Theatre, the sensational reviews she received, and the renewed interest in her as an artist of the top magnitude, kept the show running for over a year. I saw it twice during that time, then saw it twice more later on, when she brought it to Los Angeles and London. And four times wasn’t nearly enough to get the full range of what Horne could do with a song.

It was up to Feinstein, and the three women he invited to take part in this event, to attempt to convey in the songs she made famous, what made Horne such a singular talent. Feinstein opened the show singing Cole Porter’s “From This Moment On,” in an arrangement that swung with joy and celebration, under the confident musicianship of conductor and arranger Tedd Firth. Then, after serenading us with the Billy Strayhorn ballad, “I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good,” Feinstein brought out the first of his three guests, six-time Grammy nominee Nnenna Freelon. Dressed in a slinky, dark green velvet gown, Freelon gave her three songs her own unique take, markedly different from the way Horne recorded them. “Just One of Those Things” had an inward contemplativeness that gave new meaning to some of its familiar lyrics; “A Flower is a Lovesome Thing,” a second Strayhorn ballad, was particularly effective in Freelon’s rendition, especially when the trees in Central Park, still lit by the setting sun out the windows of the Appel Room, agreed to cooperate with the lyric “Playing in the breeze, swaying with the trees.” Freelon closed her set with Horne’s signature number “Stormy Weather,” which in Freelon’s arrangement, was so different as to have made the tune unrecognizable at times (which is intended as a compliment to the originality of her performance).

Sixteen-year-old Newark, New Jersey native Alexis Morrast was up next with Cole Porter’s sophisticated “It’s All Right with Me.” Confidently sung, she won over the audience with her youthful exuberance in a nanosecond, and followed with “Believe” from the Broadway musical The Wiz, which when it was made into a film in 1978, had Lena Horne in the role of Glinda, the Good Witch of the North (not mentioned last night, but a fun trivia fact, is that when the film’s director Sidney Lumet cast Horne in The Wiz, he was her then son-in-law).

The last of the trio of women song-stylists, was two-time Tony Award winner Christine Ebersole, blessed with one of the most unique voices there is, and a wonderful cabaret performer in her own right. Joining Feinstein for “Where or When,” she soloed with “I Only Have Eyes for You,” which she told the audience was from the 2001 Broadway revival of 42ndStreet, which coincidentally had opened on May 2, exactly seventeen years ago last night. She finished with an exacting reproduction of the way Horne performed “I’m Going to Sit Right Down and Right Myself a Letter” in The Lady and Her Music. Ebersole wailed and carried on like nobody’s business and featured the extraordinary musicianship of trumpeter Alphonso Horne, prompting Feinstein when he returned to the stage to exclaim (tongue-in-cheek) “what a shame it is that Christine never really lets loose.”

Before closing out the night, Feinstein read a poem aloud by the writer James Baldwin, written for his dear friend Lena Horne, that was a moving tribute. Then, finally taking a seat at the piano for the first time, Feinstein began a version of Cole Porter’s “At Long Last Love,” that commenced to fantastic full-on swing with the big band.

The Enchanting Lena Horn proved as enchanting as its titled namesake, and yet another feather in the cap of this “Jazz & Popular Song Series” at Jazz at Lincoln Center.

 

Michael Feinstein: The Enchanting Lena Horne

Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Appel Room, 10 Columbus Circle, NYC

http://www.jazz.org/events/t-6259/Michael-Feinstein-The-Enchanting-Lena-Horne/ Thru May 3 at 7pm and 9:30 pm

 

Christine Ebersole, Moi, Michael Feinstein (Thanks Sandy McGraw for the Photo)

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