A Little Liberace Enchants … London’s Jazzy Claire Martin–No, She’s Not a Spice Girl

Sloane Eases On; A Little Liberace

Musically speaking, 1998 is off to a bang-up start. In today’s music, chaos reigns-all those screaming no-talents hawking and spitting and committing vocal sins they once might have gotten themselves arrested for, disturbing the peace and all that, all those bogus songs, pushing and dissonant, demanding attention or else. Amid so much commotion and locomotion, there is the velvety voice of Carol Sloane. In a well-deserved engagement at Rainbow and Stars (through Jan. 17), this hard-working jazz diva measures her space quietly, slowly and surely, achieving beauty and balance that is ambrosia for the ears. Celebrating the songs of Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald, she has a lot of musical literature to draw from, and although the Boston-based vocalist loses none of her improvisational jazz technique in the process, the repertoire is breezier and more accessible than usual. She unravels it flawlessly.

Here is a blend of material and performer that reaches a pinnacle of sophistication. She bends notes like the valves on a bass trombone, restricts her phrasing to a minimum of scat and investigates the emotional subtexts of classics like “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You” with breathy ease. Like all great artists, Ms. Sloane makes you feel what she’s doing is effortless, yet the exquisite phrasing and savvy intonation in her technique would be hard to duplicate, the authority and experience next to impossible. Among the many dramatic heights of excellence, “Looking Back,” a gorgeous ballad by the late jazz pianist Jimmy Rowles, is a standout. The rapturous Billy Strayhorn verse to “Something to Live For,” usually discarded by singers, is a welcome prelude to this famous ballad, which she learned from the Ella Fitzgerald Duke Ellington Songbook recording. Dreamily phrasing “I’m Glad There Is You,” she’s more Sarah Vaughn than Ella, and on the swingers Mr. Sinatra recorded with the Jimmy Dorsey band, she is anything but a bobby-soxer. Still, she manages to evoke the tenderness and carefree insouciance of the golden era of big-band stylists with thrust and panache.

Accompanied brilliantly by three of the best musicians in the business, she finds new forms of expression in the arrangements by pianist Bill Mays. Drummer Ron Vincent’s subtle rumba beat on “I Concentrate on You” is thrilling, while bass wizard Martin Wind does things with a string bow that seem positively X-rated. This deceptively uncomplicated, no-frills performance by an extraordinarily gifted woman is one of the posh club’s most intelligent bookings, and the nicest way to start the new year I can possibly imagine. Carol Sloane is a one-woman musical picnic who brings her own relish.

Upstairs at Sardi’s, just about everybody in New York’s show-business solar system is showing up en masse for a “happening” that has been going on for months and is now extended through Feb. 27. Climb the carpeted steps in front of the coat check to the second-floor dining room and enter the world of Mark Nadler. Any Friday night from 9:30 P.M. until 1:30 A.M. will do. Mr. Nadler is a singer-dancer-pianist Punchinello who doesn’t exactly have an act. He has many acts, and in the course of an evening he does them all. He’s wild and wacky and off the wall; his show includes every guest performer who drops in, involves audience participation, and is a cross between Liberace and Ish Kabibble.

Mr. Nadler seems to have been shot out of a cannon. Clowning his way through songs from Chicago , sometimes with the cast in attendance, he crosses his legs and pedals with one foot while tapping in rhythm with the other, choreographing himself without ever leaving the piano bench. Sometimes he gets up and throws himself across the top of the piano, singing upside down. You never know what will happen next or who it will happen to .

The night I dropped in, there was no intermission and the show seemed longer than Titanic , but I laughed myself silly. Two of Gordon MacRae’s kids displayed their wares, with Heather singing a new song by her brother Bruce, who accompanied. Then cabaret artist Marta Sanders joined Mr. Nadler in a hilarious duet on “A Little Priest” from Sweeney Todd , followed by Forbidden Broadway’ s Christine Petty machine-gunning her way through a wild patter song while Pat Frawley, a definitive translator for the deaf, tried to interpret lyrics at breakneck speed in sign language (“What a hand job!” yelled Mr. Nadler).

Everyone stopped to sing “Happy Birthday” to Mr. Nadler’s press agent. Sultry-voiced red hot mama Baby Jane Dexter ad-libbed the blues. K.T. Sullivan sang songs about winter, snow and Christmas. Mr. Nadler imitated Ethel Merman screaming “I Got Rhythm” in sequin sneakers with metal taps on the toes and heels. “S’Wonderful” got a full stage production to the accompaniment of “Rhapsody in Blue” (if you don’t think that’s inventive, just try it). Songwriters auditioned scores from musicals that have everything-except the $10 million they need to produce them. And just when I thought my entertainment level had reached its saturation level, the mad Mr. Nadler launched into a 30-minute concert version of “The 12 Days of Christmas” with every different day sung by Bette Davis, Tallulah Bankhead, Carol Channing, Eartha Kitt, Louis Armstrong, Mae West, Kate Hepburn, Marlee Matlin, Helen Keller, Jimmy Durante, Elmer Fudd and-oh, what the hell, it was almost 2 A.M. and I was too pickled to count.

What I will tell you, is Mark Nadler’s Friday night soirees at Sardi’s are the best commedia dell’arte in town. It’s like being invited to a late-night party in Rasputin’s living room.

Stritch Does Rio; London’s Nice Girl

I want to share two new CD’s that have not left my sound system for any interval longer than it takes to brush my teeth. Billy Stritch’s The Waters of March (After 9) is a lush, romantic collection of splendidly arranged Brazilian tunes that might well be called “Texas Goes to Rio.” The sensationally talented singer-pianist from Houston capitalizes on his obsession with the samba on classic compositions by Antonio Carlos Jobim, Don Caymmi, Marcos Valle, Sergio Mendes and Ivan Lins, with a few new tunes he wrote himself that blend contemporary jazz with Latin salsa.

It’s a lushly recorded CD with strangely delightful Brazilian percussion instruments, guitars, flugelhorns, flutes, a full compliment of strings and, of course, the inimitable Mr. Stritch himself on piano. His chords are nonpareil, and he’s singing with new power, control and confidence, his voice a breath of sugar cane in the breeze one minute and a fiery slug of straight rum the next. He’s as American as Yankee Stadium, but on the 11 tracks in this collection, he brings back the sun and surf of Ipanema I remember from my own brief visits to Rio.

One song in particular, an Ivan Lins masterpiece entitled “Evolution,” transcends all geographical boundaries with a universal message about ecology and the human heart. If you cherish what can be achieved when intelligence marries passion in a mating dance of musical perfection, you cannot afford to pass this one by. From child prodigy to pop-jazz vocals to the concert stage, Mr. Stritch never fails to amaze me, but this time he’s surpassed the expectations of even his most ardent fans.

What’s more, Claire Martin, a jazz icon from London who is already a cult singer among the American critical cognoscenti, is invading the U.S. market in a big way. Make This City Ours (Honest), hot off the press, will introduce you to the sexiest, prettiest and most daring vocalist I’ve come across in a decade. Another lover of bossa nova, she sings the title tune by Milton Nascimento like nobody else before her. On Blossom Dearie’s “Bye-Bye Country Boy,” she’s a tough city Lorelei who dashes the heart of a naïve rube against the rocks, but not without discovering a fearful, beating soul of her own in the afterglow.

From Johnny Mercer, Harold Arlen and Irving Berlin standards, to the swinging voltage of a funny, hip “Collagen Lips,” and back to poetic ballads smooth as raw silk, she’s as versatile as she is beautiful. (Whoever heard of a jazz singer who looks like a film star, too?) This is a high-wire act by a classy, carefree, liberated and very stylish contemporary glamour-puss (think Gwyneth Paltrow cross-pollinated with Natasha Richardson) who has an inexhaustible supply of musical talent under her Karl Lagerfeld jacket. I’ve been an enthusiast before. Now it’s your turn.

In a recent issue of Vogue , on the eve of the release of this terrific new CD, Ms. Martin said, “I hope America knows that there’s more coming out of London than the Spice Girls.” It does now.

A Little Liberace Enchants … London’s Jazzy Claire Martin–No, She’s Not a Spice Girl