The New York cabaret season is humming to a close, but before waxing that bikini line and heading for the beach, take note: The big rooms are saving the best for last.
The finale for the Algonquin’s august Oak Room season features music so sublime it must not be missed. A whole night of Irving Berlin, sung to perfection by England’s best young jazz singer, Claire Martin, accompanied by the incomparable, knowledgeable and knighted Sir Richard Rodney Bennett. Ms. Martin looks, at some angles, like Jodie Foster, and when she stamps gorgeous movie songs like “Better Luck Next Time” (from Easter Parade) and “Love, You Didn’t Do Right by Me” (from White Christmas) with her own special patina, you know she’s on friendly terms with the cinema. Berlin wrote 15,000 songs in his salad days, so you can do only so much in a one-hour cabaret show. But when this dazzling Dreamsicle covers the territory, it stays covered.
Of course, it wouldn’t be Berlin without celebrating his favorite singer, Fred Astaire—their careers were so intrinsically linked. Sometimes Mr. Bennett joins Ms. Martin in inspired duets like “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” and “Let Yourself Go,” sounding like two Astaires instead of one. They both love to explore seldom-heard songs off the beaten track. From the Broadway show Louisiana Purchase, Ms. Martin breathes fresh oxygen into the obscure but haunting “Fools Fall in Love,” and on an old Alice Faye favorite, “He Ain’t Got Rhythm,” Mr. Bennett really hits his stride. With his conversational reading of “Say It Isn’t So,” he reaches the apex of his own musical imagination, and his arrangement of “What’ll I Do?” builds a rueful introspection for Ms. Martin’s voice to bask in. What a great way to wind up the season. They are to songs what sugar and cream are to coffee. With Claire Martin, Richard Rodney Bennett and Irving Berlin, sophistication is guaranteed. The burnished wood under the muted lights of the Oak Room glows as much as the audience.
Smoldering like an ember on a rainy night, the peerless Brazilian singer-pianist Eliane Elias has been packing them in at Dizzy’s Coca-Cola, New York’s best jazz club and the only room in town where the food is as great as the music. With a voice as smoky and warm as a dark Creole roux, she is currently celebrating her new Concord Jazz CD, “Light My Fire”—and boy, does she ever. Accompanied by a tumultuous Brazilian jazz combo headed by her husband, Marc Johnson, on acoustic bass (“He’s from Omaha, Neb., but he has a Brazilian heart”), she provides some of the most sensual, un-gimmicky sounds in our digital world. Swinging in chords is always a thrill and she really knows how. The CD has three duets with the unsurpassed Gilberto Gil, and even outside the recording studio, she plays around with tempos like she’s mixing cocktails.
Maybe it’s the Portuguese, but Brazilian singers seem to make more sounds with their vocal chords than anyone else. Shapely and ladylike at first, when she kicks off her heels and goes to work on the pedals in her nylons, she really heats the gumbo. Think of Ellen Barkin playing a chanteuse on a nightclub stage owned by gangsters in an old black-and-white Hollywood musical, and you get the visuals. From familiar favorites like the Dave Brubeck theme song “Take Five” and Stevie Wonder’s “My Cherie Amour” to her original composition “Bate Bate” (pronounced “Batchi-Batchi,” what the beat of the human heart sounds like in Rio), the sambas overflow in a throwback to the surprising, infectious rhythms that started the bossa nova craze 50 years ago. But Eliane Elias is also fresh, contemporary and sexy, taking classics by João Gilberto and Antonio Carlos Jobim in a whole new direction. There really is nobody like her, and you owe it to yourself to catch her while the mic is still hot. Buy “Light My Fire”—it will cool your summer.