Celia Berk: Now That I Have Everything

  • Post author:
  • Reading time:7 mins read

Celia Berk

Now That I Have Everything

54 Below, NYC, April 18, 2023

Reviewed by Geoff Stoner

Celia Berk
Photo: Maryann Lopinto

On this night, Celia Berk made her 54 Below debut in Now That I Have Everything as she celebrated the release of her third CD, which uses the same name. Berk’s voice and interpretations were, as usual, superb. A surprising delight was her decision to spotlight her musicians, which offered insights into the process of creating a band and the contribution that the individual instrumentalists made to the recording. In doing so, Berk commented on the process of recording the material and then presenting it in live performance.

Berk took to the stage with a playful take on Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn’s “How Are Ya Fixed for Love?” It was a nice opener, and it gave her musicians—music director Tedd Firth on piano, Jay Leonhart on bass, Matt Munisteri on guitar, and Rex Benincasa on percussion—a chance to solo. What musicians they were!

Berk first explained the timeline of making her CD, which started during an October 2017 conversation with her friend, Debbi Whiting, daughter of Margaret and granddaughter of songwriter Richard A. Whiting. To hear Berk tell it, Debbi was going through her mother’s music and came across a tune she felt Berk should sing. That song was “Now That I Have Everything.” Firth played a section of the late Tex Arnold’s arrangement of the song “in Margaret’s key.” Berk had decided that the song would be the closing track on her next CD.

The first in-person meeting between Berk and Firth took place in January 2020 with their first recording session scheduled for March 23, 2020. By then, the world was in lock down due to the Covid pandemic. When Berk shared this, the audience sighed a collective sigh of understanding and in recognition of what was to come. 

The first recording session did not happen until June 2021, 15 months later. When that session finally did occur, Berk had secured Grammy and Tony winner Scott Lehrer as the recording engineer. She explained how, due to social distancing requirements, each performer—musicians and singer alike—would have to operate out of five separate recording booths. These overwhelming logistics led to Leonhart, the ever delightful avuncular soul, turning to the audience to assure us that “it was fun.” Berk’s beautifully sung, played, and executed CD was the result.

When Berk asked Firth about his thoughts for the band, he suggested modeling the group on Nat King Cole’s trio and Oscar Peterson’s original trio—piano, guitar, and bass. He explained how having a guitar gave listeners a chance to hear the piano in a completely different way. How right he was; throughout the evening we heard Firth’s glistening piano—spare, elegant, and generous.

“Boum!” (Charles Trenet) was an unexpected and satisfying addition to the CD. Berk had the band join her vocals in the final resounding BOUM! to great effect. This type of fun, dramatic device is always welcome, and Berk and her director found a perfect opportunity to use it here.

She sang a slow, sensual and beautifully conversational medley of “Moonburn” and “The Late Late Show” (Hoagy Carmichael/Edward Heyman and Murray Berlin/Roy Alfred) that made a fascinating pairing; the songs’ lyrics blended perfectly together. The interplay between the piano, bass, and guitar showed how the instruments could add to the mood (and even the story) of the piece.

“It Happens Everyday” (Carly Simon), was sung plaintively and simply. It’ was heartbreaking. Berk asked Munisteri to play “the boy” in Simon’s lyrics (“after you break up, you say these words to your friends: ‘how could that boy have been so bad to me in the end’”). After his gorgeous solo, Munisteri confessed he had channeled his “inner third grader.” Berk’s friend, Roger Schore supplied the lyrics to Billy Strayhorn’s instrumental “Bittersweet,” which was touching and tender in the singer’s treatment. 

Benincasa explained what he thinks percussion brings to the music and said that he finds “toys and trash” and other unique objects to make sounds that support and contribute to the song. In his explanation, he shed new light on the role a percussionist takes on in a band.

Berk, Leonhart, and Benincasa all shined on “Right as the Rain” (Harold Arlen/E. Y. Harburg) Berk used a lilting, delicate upper register to communicate both the fragility of the moment (“Right as the rain that falls from above, so real, so right, is our love”) and the unpredictable nature of love. It was a beautiful tonal expression of life’s mutability. It began with a bass solo, then Berk joined in. The interplay between the two was delightful. Leonhart had a beautiful mid-song solo, and Benincasa contributed an astonishingly sensual (and visual) effect with two sandpaper blocks; it became the rain that Berk sang about.

“With Every Breath I Take” (Cy Coleman/David Zippel) showcased Firth’s delicate touch on the keyboard and was matched by Berk’s restrained soprano. In a delightful “Comes Love” (Lew Brown/Sam Stept/Charles Tobias) Berk interjected the lyric “Comes a Covid”; the audience laughed. The lyric seemed apt, given the effort that went into bringing the CD to fruition. During her acknowledgments, Berk credited Jeff Harnar for his directorial expertise in shaping the show.

Berk’s sumptuous voice and interpretive skills were evident. With Firth, Leonhart, Munisteri, and Benincasa alongside her, she created a delightful, collaborative show that was touching, delightful, and thoroughly entertaining.

Geoff Stoner

Geoff Stoner is a New York-based performer who has created and appeared in cabaret shows such as "Words Wit Music" (Songs with Monologues)," "You're The Top (The Words and Music of Cole Porter)," and "A Short Visit Only (The Words and Music of Noel Coward)." In addition to performing, he directs solo and group cabaret shows. He has studied acting with Uta Hagen and Wynn Handman and performance with Lina Koutrakos, Rick Jensen, and others at the Yale Cabaret Conference. He also participates in jazz workshops with Gregory Toroian in NYC and Lori Mecham at the Nashville Jazz Workshop.