Press and Reviews
San Francisco, CA - September 17, 2009
San Francisco Examiner
Marilyn Maye swings and sings a musical master class
By Robert Sokol
Looking like the best possible combination of Elaine Stritch grit and Mitzi Gaynor glam, Marilyn Maye is back in town doing the thing she has done so fabulously well for over 70 years for the rest of this week at The Rrazz Room at Hotel Nikko.
Taking the stage in a flash of scarlet satin and diamond clusters, there is no warm-up. She just hits the opening out of the park with an aptly chosen pair of tunes - the Kern/Hammerstein “The Song Is You” and Dory and André Previn's “You're Gonna Hear From Me” - which sets her message of the evening.
“I've been doing this a few years,” Maye, 81, jokes early in the set, noting nostalgically that her last major San Francisco appearance was at the long-shuttered Venetian Room as part of a Fairmont Hotels tour.
She then kicks off a tribute to Steve Allen by remembering the break he gave her early in her career and notes not his well known television credits, but the fact that he wrote over 8,000 songs in his lifetime. Maye then offers one of the best (“This Could Be The Start Of Something Big”) and one of her favorites (“I Love You Today” from the extremely short-lived Broadway musical Sophie, as in Tucker).
Working the nightclub circuit of clubs large and small from the '60s to the '80s, Maye played a lot of what she jokingly referred to as “upholstered sewers.” Frank Sinatra, leader of the pack for her kind of entertainer, would have called the next movement “broads in bars” as Maye moves expertly through a series of wounded woman classics. In her superb notes, Murray Grand and Elysse Boyd's “Guess Who I Saw Today?” becomes a piercing, clear-eyed and elegantly-phrased deposition of betrayal and Billy Strayhorn's “Lush Life” is a wise and passionate testimony, whose only flaw is a seemingly lily-gilding vocal coda that diminished the well-paced impact of the song.
It is evident that Maye has a healthy respect for lyrics and her crisp, clear delivery - whether a belt or a whisper - lets the listener savor the story a songwriter wants to tell. A triplet of Johnny Mercer lyrics told the arc of a relationship gone wrong, starting with the romantic “Summer Wind” and ending with “One For My Baby” and showing Maye has considerable acting chops to back up the still powerful voice. More of this skillful delivery was in evidence in a series of songs associated with Ray Charles, including a wonderfully clear reading of Eddy Arnold's 1955 hit “You Don't Know Me.”
A fantastic Cole Porter medley benefits greatly from a brilliant arrangement that allows Maye to playfully interact with each of her three musicians without bogging down into the ubiquitous and sometimes interminable instrumental solo spots that are part of the nightclub jazz set standard. A chestnut like “I Get A Kick” feels fresh and new and Maye gets masterful support from New York-based pianist Tedd Firth, the Bay Area's Dan Feiszli on bass, and drummer Jim Eklof who has been with Maye for 47 years.
The evening has other gems and Maye saves the best for last. James Taylor's “The Secret Of Life” is a lovely learn-this-lesson ballad that takes on a special poignancy when delivered as simply and artfully as Maye does, more potent still when informed by the unspoken history evident in her very being.
Overall, the evening is a fresh and breezy ride, a cozy chat with your best new friend (or, of you're very lucky, an “Old Friend” like those referenced in the Stephen Sondheim song that is part of the show). It's a party really, which is what Maye wants it to be. At the same time it's a master class in vocal performance and required viewing for any aspiring singer. It's been over a decade since the lady has graced a local stage. Grab this chance while you can and let's hope she does not make us wait too long for her next offering.