By Rob Lester, Broadway World
I’d like to begin this review of Barbara Fasano‘s evening at Birdland by thanking the longtime personal physician of the late Irving Berlin. The great songwriter revealed that it was his doctor who responded to complaints about Berlin’s anxiety-fueled bouts of insomnia with the suggestion that he dwell instead on the numerous examples of good fortune his life and career had brought him. And that directly inspired the creation of the song “Count Your Blessings (Instead of Sheep),” which, for me, was the highlight of the warm-and-fuzzy Fasano festivities. She takes what could come off as cliché bland bromide and makes it refreshed as worthy food for thought and inspiration and valued advice. This sincere, clear interpretation by a singer who gets to the heart of a heartfelt lyric is just what the doctor ordered.
A listener’s engagement is demanded by the vocalist’s apparent involvement, with actorly phrasing that is especially striking on a very well-known standard. You can’t laze into automatic pilot and sing along in your head, quote by quote, note by note, or float by rote. When at her blissful best, Barbara Fasano makes the appealing onion-peeling of phrases judiciously considered, mining the potential of points of view and images that wordsmiths articulate. She luxuriates in the moods that melodists and instrumentalists paint. For me, a caveat or carp is the almost dangerously dizzying distraction: (too) much physical evidence that she is so immersed in the music—swimming in its sweep, sway, swirl, sizzle, or slinkiness. Her shoulders, et. al. can sometimes be in constant repetitive movements (Isometrics, anyone?). Yes, a less-is-more approach, a more standing-still storyteller would benefit the songs even more. It could, I feel, focus and favor the fevered Fasano. Economy of movement can make music itself more moving and she has the ability to be hypnotic with that choice. Her elegantly stylish, attractive look and intensity of eyes and facial expressions are visually magnetic enough without choruses correlated to cozy choreography maybe meant to be contagious for the crowd. As reactive audience, I think feeling a song is more effectively done in the mind and heart and doesn’t need the “easier” invitation for undulating, bobbing and weaving, swaying in seats, or the rhythmic table-tapping or finger-snapping or clapping along that others seem to crave. (I’m not suggesting that this happened to any extended extent.)
The singer started off in relaxed, serene, mild, mellow mode with the standard “I Only Have Eyes for You” and a couple of other oldies that don’t demand drama, not hinting at the juicier, wider vocals those of us who have seen her many times (and know her recordings) would be confident of expecting. Languishing in languid Low Gear is a risk. Emotional highs and lows, however, were to come. Patter ranged from a reference to the “New Year” (that seemed stamped past its freshness date/shelf life delivered several days into February) …..to appreciative nods to the songwriters… to a non-judgmental comparison of her family home’s comfortable “finished basement” sanctuary to Birdland’s refurbished below-ground newer space where we were …..to an interesting recollection of her early days in Australia behind the scenes in the music biz.
Notably, Barbara Fasano is a performer who can be effective with both Great American Songbook standards and pop/folk items from the latter part of the 20th century. With equally clear vision, she can look up at the sky and chastise with the octogenarian number “Oh, You Crazy Moon” or convincingly explore “THE WHOLE OF THE MOON,” a 1980s item recorded by The Waterboys, even naming her act for the latter. A mash-up of ’60s pop was no mere re-chewing of nostalgia comfort food, but the more thoughtful treatment of “I Only Wanna Be with You” made me wanna be with her if she’d dedicate a whole night or CD to taking a full batch of those older songs in the same older-but-wiser, deeper manner
“Excuse us for a moment” she cutely quipped to her primo pianist –who not at all incidentally is her husband, Eric Comstock —- as she moved away to be sensuously accompanied solely by the night’s other sterling instrumentalist, bassist Sean Smith. It wasn’t until later, though, that she mentioned the fact of marriage for any not in the know; wisely, they were not overplaying the lovey-dovey card of coyness that can get tiresome.
And the entertainment ante was upped when Mr. Comstock deftly added his own vocals in a couple of numbers, one of which was the Birdland love-birds co-cooing on an encore of “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” not named on the provided set list, thus, one assumes, not “set.” (He is a top-billed attraction on many early Saturday evenings at Birdland where the three are regulars.) Instrumental work was consistently solidly sophisticated, apt, and graceful. Other unwise otherwise skillful singers and musicians are content to give us merely by-the-book, derivative, too-close-thus-no-cigar replications of other artists’ blueprints, following the pack like sheep. I’m pleased to count the blessings of those who are more creative instead of sheep. .
(Next stop for the crooning connubial cabaret couple is, appropriately, Valentine’s Day at Beach Cafe on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.)
For info on the many events at Birdland on West 44 Street, upstairs and downstairs, seewww.birdlandjazz.com
Artist website: www.barbarafasano.com