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Barbara Cook, Scampering and Swinging on the Edge of Jazz

By Stephen Holden
March 7, 2008
Unless you are under a doctor’s orders not to get too excited, who would disagree with the chipper title of Barbara Cook’s lighthearted new Café Carlyle show, “Love Is Good for Anything That Ails You”? The title, taken from the mid-30s swing tune by Cliff Friend and Matt Malneck that was sung by Bernadette Peters in the movie Pennies From Heaven, defines the tone of a program in which the balance between far-sighted introspection and good-time gal tilts toward the rollicking side. Less than one-third of the material in the show is held over from her recent Avery Fisher Hall concerts.

Ms. Cook’s appearances with the New York Philharmonic were sweeping, heartfelt summations of a career whose arc carried her from sunny meadows in which carefree Broadway ingénues frolicked into the shadowy lair of Stephen Sondheim. Her new show is a more informal potpourri. It includes only one Sondheim number, “I Wish I Could Forget You,” joined to a pensive rendition of “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter.”

Lee Musiker, the brilliant pianist and arranger who divides his time between Ms. Cook and Tony Bennett, has gently guided her into a front-row seat on the edge of jazz. To hear Ms. Cook sing a jumping “Lover, Come Back to Me,” propelled by Mr. Musiker’s scampering piano, with Peter Donovan on bass and Jim Saporito on drums, is to observe the rejuvenating chemistry of a great singer and an accompanist steering her toward the playing field. Ms. Cook could never be called a jazz singer, but she swings easily, with great good spirits.

With apologies to her friend Gloria Steinem for the lyrics’ sexist content, on Wednesday she infused the old Fanny Brice tune “Cooking Breakfast for the One I Love” with a jolly postcoital bounce. The message? To hell with political correctness; some mornings you just want to serve your man. “Hallelujah I Love Him So” was even more jubilant.

On the quieter side Peter Allen’s “Harbour” inspired a tribute to Hugh Jackman’s portrayal of Allen in The Boy From Oz, a show that so captivated Ms. Cook, she said she had seen it 16 times. From a woman of 80, that kind of enthusiasm attests to an undiminished creative engagement.