During the month of May, there was a most unusual pairing of jazz vocaliststhe legendary Annie Ross and rising star Stevie Holland, both performing every Tuesday night at The Metropolitan Room on Manhattan's West 22nd Street. When I caught them on May 22, they were both in fine form, their joint performance inviting some quick comparisons.
Annie Ross' career has been so varied that she could author several books about each of the genres that she's become involved with. Born in 1930 in Surrey, England she listened when her aunt, Ella Logan, the Broadway Star of Finian's Rainbow, encouraged her to trod the boards at a young age and even take up songwriting (Johnny Mercer recorded the song "Let's Fly" with Paul Weston and the Pied Pipers, including Jo Stafford). She also worked with Paul Whiteman, appeared in a Hollywood Little Rascals singing a jazz version of "Loch Lomand" and popped up as Judy Garland's sister in the film Presenting Lilly Mars. Still not yet twenty years old, she briefly lived in Paris , recorded with James Moody and Charlie Parker, and had a child with drummer Kenny Clarke. After recording for Dizzy Gillespie's label (DG), she finally came to New York, where in the middle 1950s she started writing her vocalese lyrics to jazz standards including "Twisted" and "Farmer's Market." When she became a vital third member in the jazz vocal cooperative Lambert, Hendricks & Ross through 1962, one door closed and another opened, including the solo albums that she made during and after those years. Something even a fan may not know about the following years is that she was asked by British Director Tony Richardson to play Pirate Jenny opposite Vanessa Redgrave in Three Penny Opera in addition to performing in Joe Papp's production of The Pirates of Penzance with Tim Curry. Next, Ross went on to appear in such films as Yanks and Superman III as well as Robert Altman's Short Cuts, in which she appeared as a singer and actress.
There had been no shortage of media coverage regarding Annie Ross' ongoing appearances at The Metropolitan Room, but this listener did not feel any compunction to praise her by virtue of her legacy and was able to view Ross' performance with, we hope, objectivity. However, listeners who cherish vocal memories of Ross' soaring high-end voice on the LH&R repertoire of such numbers as Count Basie's "It's Sand, Man!," Horace Silver's "Come on Home" and Miles Davis' original version of "Four" may be disappointed. When a septuagenarian vocalist keeps the old material in the act, usually it means that the pacing becomes slower as do the songs and that one should expect a larger amount of recititation than singing. I did find that Ross was no exception, but her acting talents came to the fore on such occasions. On the set that I attended her up-tempo standards (other than the LH&R material)the opening "Too Marvelous For Words" and "Have You Got Any Castles, Baby?"were delivered with panache and style.
Any supporting jazz combo that provides the great Warren Vaché on almost every song has to be considered a musical blessing for both the performer and listener. On the opening tune, Johnny Mercer's "Too Marvelous for Words," taken at mid-tempo, Vaché uncorked a beautiful muted trumpet obbligato. "Can it get any better than this?" I asked myself. Neil Miner on bass and Tony Jefferson on drums provided the rhythm.
On the following Vernon Duke standard, "Autumn In New York," Ross spelled out the entire verse of the tune for a rapt audience. A surprise entry came next with Richard Whiting's rarely heard "Have You Got Any Castles, Baby?" showing that she can still move a crowd with an up-tempo tune. On "Speak Low" and "Watch What Happens" the pace was slowed to a crawl while Ross became engaged in a totally nuanced presentation of both ballads.
Musical director and pianist Tardo Hammer provided the musical cues that kept the show going smoothly until it was time for Ross to venture into tricky musical waters with her most well-known vocalese tune, "Twisted," based on a Wardell Gray solo. The long history that I have with this song makes it almost embarrassing that she has to mention that Joni Mitchell did not compose this tune, as everyone should know. The truth is that at age 76, Annie Ross can still bring off the essential meaning of the humorous tune without hesitation. There were some additional diversions with Ross' treatments of the Hugh Martin/Hal Blaine "Every Time" and the bubbling calypso, "An Occasional Man".