Dame Cleo Laine and her husband, reed player John Dankworth, have been working together since the 1950s and have enjoyed a good deal of success in the United States as well as in their native Great Britain. Although Dame Cleo’s career has included stints in the West End and on Broadway as well as dalliances with the classical repertoire, she has generally been classified as a jazz singer.
Live in Manhattan, recorded in 1998, represents the Dankworths third live recording from Carnegie Hall. Remarkably, the concert finds the then-71-year-old singer still in command of most of her fabled four-octave range. Blessed with a richly textured, smoky alto in her natural register, Dame Cleo is also able to leap into the stratosphere where she can hit notes in falsetto with surprising accuracy.
Dame Cleo’s fans will no doubt find much in these performances to admire. For anyone else, the record proves to be a bit more problematic. The rhythm section sounds flabby and ponderous. Unfortunately, Dame Cleo seems somewhat oblivious to that fact, as she is preoccupied for much of the concert with running up and down her range in perfect unison with Mr. Dankworth’s reeds. It is a virtuoso display of technique that often serves little musical purpose. Indeed, several of these performances appear to be more about eliciting applause than about making music. Similarly, Dame Cleo’s athletic scat singing, although perfectly in tune, lacks the rhythmic drive or harmonic imagination that distinguishes creative improvisation.
Although she has spent much of her career being pushed as a British Ella Fitzgerald, the reality is that Cleo Laine’s greatest strength lies in her interpretive abilities. Her voice, with its endless variety of tonal colors, can convey a sense of hard-earned wisdom. Unfortunately, Mr. Dankworth’s often-busy arrangements rarely allow his wife to settle into a lyric and tell a story.
Still, despite all those limitations and reservations, Live in Manhattan is not without highlights. Dame Cleo deftly weaves together an extended medley of tunes by Vincent Youmans by treating the shifting lyrics as a continuous narrative. She also tears the lid off of a smoking version of “Taking a Chance on Love” that includes several seldom-heard choruses. Performances like these suggest that, perhaps, Cleo Laine’s formidable reputation is not wholly undeserved.
Personnel: Cleo Laine: vocals; John Dankworth: clarinet, alto saxophone and soprano saxophone; Tommy James: piano; David Dunaway: bass; Jim Zimmerman: drums; Jay Branford: baritone saxophone and bass clarinet; Robert Magnusun: tenor saxophone and flute.