Vocal Mania: Janis Siegel and Lauren Kinhan

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Vocal Mania

Hosts Janis Siegel and Lauren Kinhan

Birdland Theater, NYC, July 10, 2019

Reviewed by Alix Cohen for Cabaret Scenes

Lauren Kinhan & Janis Siegel
Photo: Russ Titleman

Janis Siegel (Manhattan Transfer) and Lauren Kinhan (New York Voices) have been hosting this curated musical shindig once a month for some time, most recently at Birdland Theater. Tonight, with a band comprised of John di Martino (MD/piano), Yoshi Waki (bass), Vince Cherico (drums), and Brian Seeger(guitar), they bring together voices and styles from jazz to blues and funk, classic songbook to popular Brazilian.

Siegel opens the show in Portuguese with a serene “Luz do Sol” (“Sunlight”) (Caetano Veloso). The poetic lyric bounces gently from bright to breathy with evocative, round-edged enunciation and refined piano. Clearly the vocalist has a feel for the music. If only some lyrics some had been translated; if only they weren’t being read.

Later, Susan Pereira offers a lively “Sambou, Sambou” (João Donato), also in Portuguese.  Here, we’re told the story: A woman dances all night and is angry when the sun comes up. Her lover thinks she loves samba more than she loves him. Like Siegel, Periera knows when to snap and when to shush. A mouthful of words emerges trippingly.

Kinhan duets with daughter Ella Marcus on her own “I Saw Love Today,” part of a rock opera. I admit to not understanding lovers being like “needles in the hay” as a romantic metaphor, and the melody is hard to pin down. Still, the two voices work well, with Marcus exhibiting skill and poise.

Special guest Nicole Henry, always a treat, presents four songs with particularly intriguing arrangements. “Feelin’ Good” (Anthony Newley/Leslie Bricusse) begins a cappella with a visible pulse passing through the artist’s body. It’s as sensual as a stretching cat. Irving Berlin’s iconic “What’ll I Do?” emerges on stroked piano as di Martino bends in and over the keys à la Bill Evans. (Working entirely without sheet music throughout the evening, this veteran defines virtuosity.) The long-lined lyrical flow contrasts with Cherico’s percussion, yet retains intention as it morphs from songbook to jazz.

Henry and Kinhan work the lyric of “Born to Be Blue” (Mel Tormé/Robert Wells) like clay. Henry’s delivery is bright and clear; Kinhan is dark and gritty. They play off one another. “Magic” (Coldplay) sashays in on finger snaps. Piano twitters. Henry is infectiously happy. “And I don’t, and I don’t, and I don’t, and I don’t/ No I don’t, it’s true/ I don’t, no, I don’t, no, I don’t, no, I don’t/Want anybody else but you.”

An unexpected alternative lyric for “Lullaby of Birdland”—now called “Melodious Funk”—describes the jazz scene of the 1950s. As performed by writer/singer Giacomo Gates, the number is cool, crisp, and very much of its era. (It’s also a take-off on Manhattan Transfer’s “Birdland.”) Gates scats like a horn; the vocal is savory. (The song was originally written by George Shearing with lyrics by George David Weiss.)

Bette Sussman, who has a YouTube show called Bette’s Diner on which she cooks with musicians, also knows how to get musically down and dirty. At the piano (and vocal) with Siegel and Kinhan on back-up, “I Don’t Know” (Willie Mabon) parades like a stripper. Gillian Margot, who seems to have talent, presents a version of “What U Won’t Do 4 Love” (Victor Wooten) that suffers from a monochromatic arrangement. Cindy Scott, Siegel, and Kinhan join for Smokey Robinson’s “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me” which arrives dense and oddly unmelodic.

Tonight’s so-called “Young Person,” is Joie Bianco, headed to college in Miami this September. An old soul with tremendous talent and presence, Bianco has been, courtesy of The Mabel Mercer Foundation, on my radar since she was 15. Her beguiling performance of “Baby You Know It” (Bob Dorough) is like being in a club back then. Breath is long, phrasing consummate, lyrics cascade with precision; she gets it.

The evening was full of welcome surprises.

The next Vocal Mania is August 21, 2019.

Alix Cohen

Alix Cohen’s writing began with poetry, segued into lyrics then took a commercial detour. She now authors pieces about culture/the arts, including reviews and features. A diehard proponent of cabaret, she’s also a theater aficionado, a voting member of Drama Desk, The Drama League and of The NY Press Club in addition to MAC. Currently, Alix writes for Cabaret Scenes, Theater Pizzazz and Woman Around Town. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine and Times Square Chronicles. Alix is the recipient of six New York Press Club Awards.