Halfway into her performance at B.B. King's in New York Friday night, Dionne Warwick perched on a padded stool near the piano. It was the only time the energetic icon took a seat during her 90-minute show. But as the lights came down to set the mood, a seat seemed perfectly appropriate to deliver the inquisitive ballad Alfie. By the end of the song—Dionne recorded the 43d cover of Alfie in 1967 and had its biggest hit—the sold-out audience was roaring.
At the start of her appearance Friday, Dionne emerged without a buildup announcement or warmup act or any of the formal trappings you see with many legendary divas today. The congenial, wide-smiled singer simply came out as her band played a Bacharachian riff. Within seconds, she warmly bonded with the audience. And though she urged everyone to sing along on favorite songs, those who took her up on her offer dropped off quickly.
Hal David's lyrics aren't easily remembered, and Burt Bacharach's complex melodies take too many sharp turns, making the amateur quickly realize that her invitation was just an act of generosity, a dare of sorts. Singing along with these transistor-radio hits is a nice thought but virtually impossible. Besides, simply listening to her voice—still deeply meaningful and as signature as a famous building—was much more fun.
Listening to Dionne work through her hits, you realize she's much more than just a pop hit-maker. Her phrasing and intonation put her on par with all of the modern jazz greats—from Ella and Sarah to Carmen and Peggy. Her voice is all her own, and she can deliver songs with improvisation and a smooth graininess that's the audio equivalent of running your hand along suede.
Dionne covered all of her biggies, and she appeared to enjoy singing them as much as the audience loved hearing them: Walk on By, Anyone Who Had a Heart, You'll Never Get to Heaven, What Do You Get When You Fall in Love, Message to Michael, This Girl's in Love With You, I Say a Little Prayer (which she sang as a duet with her son and performer David Elliott) and Alfie.
Then came a medley of Brazilian songs, in tribute to what she called her home away from home: Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars, Wave, Waters of March, Brazil and an extended Latin version of Do You Know the Way to San Jose. To wind down, she sang I'll Never Love This Way Again, What the World Needs Now and That's What Love Is For (another duet with Elliott).
Dionne remains remarkable, but her special quality is more than just a trip down memory lane. Her stage personality and banter recall earlier days when singers had to be entertainers. Her voice is truly embracing and meaningful from a jazz perspective. And best of all, she handles that vocal instrument like a stunt driver zig-zagging through traffic. Even the studious and seasoned passenger realizes soon enough that those skills aren't easily duplicated, no matter how easy Dionne makes it look.
But Dionne's appeal goes beyond technique. Burt Bacharach and Hal David wrote incredible music, and the pair, particularly Bacharach [pictured], haven't really been given their full due. I've often wondered which '60s composing duo was more successful and meaningful, Bacharach and David or Lennon and McCartney. Dionne was the voice of Bacharach-David's success—the trademark evocation of Bacharach's dodge-ball melodies and David's haunting words. It's hard to think of another singer who is so closely identified with a hit songwriter's efforts, except perhaps Jimmy Van Heusen and Frank Sinatra.
At this stage in her career and given her polished delivery, Dionne truly deserves re-evaluation. There's a lot going on vocally in each of her songs, and she truly is the only artist of her generation who represented jazz, pop, r&b, soul and rock wrapped up in one graceful package. If you ever have an opportunity to see Dionne Warwick perform, do. You'll feel great and you'll be a lot wiser afterward if you listen carefully.
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Ron Carter. Here's another one of those glorious CBS Sunday Morning segments that Billy Taylor produced and hosted for so many years. This one on bassist Ron Carter appeared on January 11, 1998. Go here.
Bill Evans. For a candid and harrowing look inside the last months of pianist Bill Evans' tortured life, Laurie Verchomin's new book The Big Love: Life and Death with Bill Evans covers the painful details. As Evans' lover at the time, Laurie had the unique perspective of being both with the pianist emotionally and somewhat detached as a non-musician and a patient eyewitness. There's a bewildered, lost-soul quality about the events Laurie relates as she tries to cope with Evans' depression, drug use, eccentricities (eight packs of sugar in a cup of coffee) and creative genius.
Laurie managed to navigate her choppy period with Evans relatively unscathed, albeit shocked and dazed. One gets the feeling that she still is trying to make sense of it all. The Big Love ultimately is an attempt to come to grips with the jazz artist Laurie knew so well and the individual she was trying to find in herself.
Art Blakey. Following my post on singer Rita Reys' 1956 recording with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, I received the following from reader Steve Blum last week:
"I am a jazz musician in my mid 20's and a huge fan of your blog. I have a recording of Jon Hendricks singing with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers in '73. Hendricks scats a pretty memorable solo on Moanin'. It seems to be out of print, I have the mp3s I got from a friend a while back. Can't find it for sale anywhere."
Four Freshmen. If you're in the New York area in early December, reader Joe Lang informs me that the current Four Freshmen will be performing a Christmas concert at Raritan Valley Community College in North Branch, N.J., on December 11. For more information, go here.
Oddball album cover of the week. Arranger Manny Albam may hold the record for best albums with the worst LP covers. Here's food for thought: a photo shoot featuring produce piled high on drum heads to illustrate the album's even more "inventive" title. And just in case groceries on skins aren't compelling enough, the art director tossed in a model. Hard to tell, though, whether her eyes are closed in ecstasy or embarrassment.