The Washington Post

The Jazz Scene: Cooking With a Vivacious Vocalist

By Will Friedwald
April 12, 2012
Barbara Cook
The Kennedy Center’s newest honoree starts her shows by reminding us that she’s old (85 this fall); in her characteristically self-deprecating fashion, she makes a spectacle out of needing to be helped onto the stage by two burly waiters. But once there, she opens her mouth and, without fuss or fanfare, proceeds to blow every other singer, of any age, clear out of the water. Ms. Cook’s latest one-woman cabaret offering leads her ever further from the traditional Broadway repertoire—the Rodgers, Hammerstein and Sondheim that she’s associated with—and toward the rustic jazz of Hoagy Carmichael, the witty, swinging rockabilly of Dan Hicks, and even “House of the Rising Sun.” In her finest moments, which are many, she closes her eyes makes you feel as though she’s eliminated all but four elements: you, her, the music, and that elusive quality known as the truth.

Early in her first career as a musical-theater leading lady, Ms. Cook was recognized as a singing actress of exceptional ability. Apart from creating the leads in at least two all-time classic shows, The Music Man and She Loves Me, she was the perennial go-to gal for Rodgers and Hammerstein whenever they needed a new Julie Jordan or Magnolia Hawks. When she graduated Broadway to launch a solo career in clubs and concert halls, her endgame was to demonstrate how the great showtunes could stand on their own without the larger contexts of the shows they were written for—as in her now classic Mostly Sondheim concert and subsequent album.

Forty years ago, Ms. Cook outgrew Broadway itself, and in her last few years, especially, she’s similarly reached beyond the strict Broadway repertoire. While her set of showtunes probably reflects what she was doing in her 20s and 30s, much of what she’s singing at Feinstein’s for the next two weeks could be the songs she heard as a youngster growing up in Atlanta during the war years and earlier. She tells us she’s never before sung the music of Hoagy Carmichael, yet her treatment of “The Nearness of You” is heartbreakingly tender; each time she utters “Oh no...,” she packs enough emotion into that apparent throwaway phrase for it to stand as a song in itself. She informs us in her patter that “Georgia On My Mind” was a stretch for her, since, even though she grew up there, she bears no particular affection for the place—moonlight, pines and all—but the way she sings that Carmichael classic implies the opposite.

Ms. Cook is rhythmic and funny on Dan Hicks’s “I Don’t Want Love,” a gastronomically driven “list” song that takes the place of “The Frim Fram Sauce” from last year’s show. Yet its her singing of the jazz standards “When Sunny Gets Blue” and “Loverman” that shows how far she’s come. These songs were specifically written for jazz singers, and when Ms. Cook sings them, she isn’t trying to reinvent herself as a jazz singer but interpret them on her own terms, giving them the same respect she gives Oscar Hammerstein. She has truly outgrown any niche and hurdled any barrier to become an artist of universal scope. When she shuts her eyes, it’s to help her see the pictures in her head that she’s already brought to life in ours.