One of the highlights of my last trip to New York (in June 2003) was the evening my wife Nancy and I spent enjoying a set by singer/lyricist Lorraine Feather at Danny’s Skylight Room. She has a terrific voice and also a way of keeping a crowd’s attention with her spoken introductions explaining the background of her lyrics prior to singing each song (the printed lyrics she distributes in advance are also a nice touch). Her delivery of each song proves her talent as an actress. So when I learned she was performing there once more during two nights of IAJE Conference, I took off an evening from the festivities to catch up with her.
Once again, the phenomenal Shelly Berg served as her pianist, starting with two solo numbers prior to her introduction. His take of the well-known “Satin Doll” was playful and a bit dissonant in spots, never sounding the least bit hackneyed. He followed with a lively take of “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” with lightning-like runs and a dashing right hand reminiscent of Oscar Peterson.
Then Ms. Feather was introduced, with Berg dashing into Fats Waller’s “Minor Drag” as she told her autobiography in rapid-fire fashion over the music, immediately drawing the audience in with her humor and animated delivery, before segueing into her side-splitting “You’re Outa Here,” which she set to “Minor Drag,” with great lines like “Put down the chips and read my lips/You’re outa here!”
But a good part of her show was devoted to songs from the vast repertoire of Duke Ellington. “The Ricitic,” an obscure bossa nova written for Ellington’s small group recording with guest Coleman Hawkins, was set farther south by Feather; hence the name “Antarctica.” The audience was chuckling after lines such as “I cried all night/That’s half a year.”
Several of the songs she performed from the Ellington book are omitted from her new CD ('Such Sweet Thunder') because of some problems getting clearances. It’s surprising that the simmering ballad “Creole Love Call” has never had words (though Ellington used various singers doing wordless vocals), but perhaps it was awaiting someone as skilled as Feather. Retitled “Love Call,” she brought out its bluesy element, lamenting a lost love that she begs to return.
“Jubilee Stomp” was another unlikely candidate for lyrics, but Dick Hyman steered her to it and she came up with another winner, re-christening the tune as “Indiana Lana,” a tall tale about a superb runner who left racecars in her dust. With Berg’s up-tempo stride piano egging her on, she dashed effortlessly through this challenging piece.
Another early Ellington work, “Doin’ the Voom Voom” (co-written with trumpeter Bubber Miley), was transformed by Feather into “Tryin' to Get Over,” a laughing look at the lengths men and women will go to in order to make an impression on one another.
But the brilliant “Imaginary Guy” remains her tour de force. Based upon “Dancers in Love” from 'The Perfume Suite,' she invited the audience to in snap their fingers along with her (part of the original Ellington shtick associated with this work) as she tells of her ideal guy who is only in her mind. (“He’s always curious to hear about her day/And deeply interested in what she has to say”).
One modern ballad is “Something Like My Own,” with music by Eddie Arkin. Her words, inspired by a train trip she took as a little girl, fit Arkin’s equally moving theme perfectly. The audience was captivated as the song and lights faded together.
She returned to the Waller songbook with her self-described “cruelty-free” piece “Alligator” (which is actually set to another of his compositions, “Valentine Stomp,” through a happy accident by Feather). Another great excerpt: “If you hear his tail whip/Shake a leg and don’t trip/Hurry, run like hell/When he rings that dinner bell.” Berg’s stride piano chops seemed like they were chasing the singer to the conclusion of her entertaining set.
They did return for a single encore, delving again into Waller material with “Timeless Rag” (adapted from “Viper’s Drag”). Feather’s sultry singing described a Zelda Fitzgerald sort of woman, a glamorous doomed creature (according to the artist). She left her audience wanting more, and I’m somehow hoping my next trip to New York will coincide with yet another one of her very entertaining shows with Shelly Berg.