Jackie and Roy! They’re Still Here!
Jackie and Roy have been taking their vitamins. Onstage and in wedlock, they’ve been together for over 50 years, and when they step onto the tiny stage of the FireBird Café, where they are making one of their rare club appearances through Sept. 23, you can see from the way those years have treated them, we should all be so lucky. The great Mabel Mercer once said, “They’re so fresh and original they’ll survive us all.” And they have.
I can see how some youngsters out there might confuse this Jackie and Roy with a couple of dead baseball players for the Brooklyn Dodgers. But to music veterans, they need no introduction. When they met back in l948, in a Chicago jazz joint called Jump Town, Jackie Cain was a radiant, leggy blonde from Milwaukee, barely out of Pulaski High School and bobby socks, who wanted to swing. Roy Kral was a young piano player from Cicero, Ill., who let her sit in for a couple of tunes with the band. At first he objected. Then she dusted off her pipes and let it rip. He liked what he heard. They’ve been together ever since, blending their voices with every musical congregation from the Charlie Ventura orchestra to the New York Philharmonic in a unique brand of harmonic bebop called “vocalese,” singing instrumental pieces written by legends like Miles Davis, Charlie Parker and Clifford Brown.
They coped with rock ‘n’ roll in the 1960′s by going electric, translating songs by John Sebastian, Simon and Garfunkel and the Beatles into jazz terms and revolutionizing pop music for more sophisticated ears. They championed Brazilian bossa nova years before everyone else, when Antonio Carlos Jobim first played his sambas in their living room. They have always championed the longevity of great songwriters, recording collections by Sondheim, the Gershwins, Alec Wilder, Cy Coleman, Alan Jay Lerner and Rodgers and Hart. And they still bridge all gaps with disarming skill, impeccable intonation and a thrilling demand for excellence, breaking rules right and left while enthralled audiences cheer for more.
The constancy of their art and the quality and joy of their music is very much on view at the FireBird these nights. Opening with some tasty Gershwin, they rollick through “Sweet and Low Down” like dolphins after a lunch break at Sea World. Then Jackie investigates the more obscure gem “Changing My Tune,” a George Gershwin ballad to which brother Ira added lyrics for a Betty Grable film in 1947. This is followed by a swinging rendition of “I Got Rhythm” that demonstrates their ability to stamp even the most familiar standards with a flavorful imprint that is very much their own. Intensely selective about their repertoire, the Krals can always be counted on to unveil something fresh, different and never before heard.
So it is with a collection of tunes with music by Roy and words by Fran Landesman, the distinguished lyricist whose “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most” has become a classic. First, there is the piercing ballad “Lost,” a ruminative lament for careless years and wasted values that will break your heart, followed by “Through the Windows of Cars,” an offbeat memory piece about life on the road from the perspective of someone on the move. A real killer song in the set I heard was a third Kral-Landesman piece, “Absent Friends,” a haunting musical toast with which anyone over 30 who has lost a few lovers and pals can easily identify. “Moon Over Miami,” the beautiful title song from a 1941 Betty Grable musical, was never sung in the film, an injustice Jackie rectifies with a solo vocal that shimmers like mylar.
This act concentrates more on accessible show tunes and standards than on the innovative vocalese arrangements that are Jackie and Roy trademarks, but “Zanzibar” is pure out-of-this-world jazz, a fracturous affair blending Dave Frishberg’s witty lyrics and contrapuntal harmonic patterns with piano chords right out of Ravel’s Pavanne , then topped off by hot Brazilian rhythms and Roy whistling in tempo over the bells and percussion. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Jackie and Roy could make a clubfoot dance.
Superbly assisted by dynamic bassist Dean Johnson and virtuoso drummer Richard DeRosa, they epitomize polish, hip musical sophistication and what people used to call class. Exuding the kind of elegant self-assurance that comes with years of craft, they are the Lunt and Fontaine of jazz. They don’t waste your time with any of the pretentious, naïve or second-rate noodling that plagues most cabaret acts these days. You will never hear a rock ‘n’ roll “My Funny Valentine,” or anything sappy by Andrew Lloyd Webber. They’ve already forgotten more about songs and how to sing them than today’s shriekers will ever learn. Yet their artistry remains effortless and their youthful appeal timeless, even in their autumnal years. I don’t want to imagine a world without the music of Jackie and Roy, but the law of diminishing returns suggests their future appearances just might be numbered. This is a blessed opportunity to see and hear how truly special they still are. Seize it.
Skip Nurse for Arms of Strangers
After an abhorrent summer, it’s time to say goodbye to rotten movies and hello to a brighter fall in which hope springs eternal. I’m off to the Toronto Film Festival, where 329 films will unspool in nine days; if my eyesight endures and my tailbone survives, expect a full report next week. Meanwhile, I leave you with a few thoughts on the changing marquees at home. The overrated Nurse Betty is movie misogynist Neil LaBute’s satirical swipe at America’s obsession with soap operas, and while it’s nice to see him working for the first time from somebody else’s lighter and less bitter script ideas, there are too many of them for one movie to deal with coherently. What this film lacks is one clear vision, no matter how churlish.
The script, about a Kansas coffee-shop waitress and daytime-soap addict (creamy Renée Zellweger) who escapes from her loveless marriage to a cretinous car salesman (another colorful characterization by LaBute regular Aaron Eckhart) and flees to Hollywood with a stash of drug money in the trunk of her Buick and a pair of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern hit men (Morgan Freeman and Chris Rock) on her tail, reeks of cleverness without purpose. The source material is so top-heavy that Nurse Betty jumps all over the place, stealing ideas from Voltaire, Pirandello, Quentin Tarantino, The Truman Show and The Wizard of Oz . Despite a tantalizing star turn by the sunny leading lady, the borrowed elements never quite jell into anything satisfyingly original. A preposterous affair from start to finish.
In The Watcher , another serial killer is terrorizing Chicago during the Christmas holidays. The twist is that, in addition to stalking victims, he’s also stalking the traumatized FBI agent who is stalking him. You know the killer’s identity from the opening scene (he’s a baby-faced maniac played by Keanu Reeves, of all people), so the problem is how to build suspense in a different way. A new kind of tension develops between the killer, who has left a trail of mutilated women all the way from L.A., and the burned-out cop (James Spader), who has tried for years to catch him and suffered a nervous breakdown from his continual failures. Now the killer makes the cop’s psychological torture a motivating factor in his slaughter-fest. This is one sick dude, and Mr. Reeves plays him with sadistic relish. In a part so small you wonder why she bothered, Marisa Tomei plays the detective’s shrink, so naturally she becomes the next target. It’s hair-raising and violent enough to sustain interest up to a point, but when the wacko tries to bond, bargaining for Ms. Tomei’s life in exchange for Mr. Spader’s friendship (“You’re like a brother to me,” he whines, before lighting the kerosene under Ms. Tomei’s shackled feet), the movie turns silly, provoking the audience into a howling fit.
The Watcher ‘s first-time director is Joe Charbanic, who has never done anything more serious than music videos for Ice T, Ice Cube and Coolio, and expects us to know the difference. But the atmospheric, cutting-edge camerawork by the great Michael Chapman, whose innovative cinematography on Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid was unforgettable, upstages the actors in every scene. Regarding the actors, Ms. Tomei is so wasted she could have phoned in her role from an all-night Denny’s. Deadpan James Spader, who often sounds like Jack Webb in Dragnet , is as monotonous as a grocery- store bar code. Some people will wonder why Keanu Reeves signed on at all, but think about it: Big, dumb action flicks like The Watcher are easy, they pay more money than art-house indie-prods, nobody notices if you can’t act and you get a big trailer with rehearsal space for your rock band.
Sensitively written and directed by Mark Jonathan Harris and soberly narrated by Judi Dench, Into the Arms of Strangers is a powerful and wrenching documentary about the heroic Kinderstransport -a rescue mission in which the people of Great Britain opened their doors and hearts to save 10,000 German children from the Nazis in the days before World War II. We know what Hitler did to the Jews, but it’s a harrowing revelation to learn what he did to their children.
Barred from schools, parks and playgrounds, their homes and synagogues burned, the children were instilled with lessons of terror and obedience, and lived under a never-ending threat of death. Escape meant exit permits, entrance visas, foreign sponsors, a country willing to take them in and money. To our everlasting shame, America did nothing to help them. England was the only country to relax its immigration rules enough to offer safe shelter for children under the age of 17. Each child was allowed one small suitcase, and when you see the extraordinary footage showing those frightened, adorable, confused innocents packing their pajamas and teddy bears and heading for the train stations, you’ll need a box of Kleenex.
You see it all, not through the retrospective eyes of historians, but through the eyes of the children themselves, most of whom never saw their families again. The grownups who recall the horrors as well as the happier moments in exile that changed their lives forever are the heroes of the film, but it’s also a tribute to the courage and kindness of the British people. The film is beautiful and noble, and the stills, interviews and film clips are gloriously assembled. I feel pity for people who define “survivor” as the title of a brainless and gimmicky television show. See Into the Arms of Strangers , experience the bravery and resourcefulness with which the 10,000 children of the Kindertransport confronted and coped with a catastrophe of this magnitude, and you’ll discover the real meaning of the word.