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Cheryl Bentyne & City of Hope All-Star Jazz Benefit: Hollywood, CA, August 11, 2012

Carl L. Hager By

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Cheryl Bentyne & City of Hope All-Star Jazz Benefit
Catalina Jazz Club
Hollywood, CA
August 11, 2012

After kicking off Saturday night's festivities with a hard-charging version of Cole Porter's "It's Alright With Me," a beaming Cheryl Bentyne welcomed Catalina Jazz Club's capacity audience by effusing over the wide array of talent that had assembled for the occasion. Event musical director Ted Howe was poised at the grand piano and ready to swing, with performers like singers Lorraine Feather, Gina Eckstine and Mark Winkler, and trombonist Bob McChesney waiting in the wings.

The up-tempo, finger-snapping atmosphere Bentyne had created in the space of four minutes was uniquely indicative of whose life was being celebrated. Her long recovery from serious illness hadn't diminished her legendary drive a bit, and that's saying something—since January of this year the multiple-Grammy-winning soprano had been undergoing treatment for Hodgkins lymphoma, and tonight she was celebrating having successfully dealt with it at the City of Hope, a cancer research and treatment center north of Los Angeles. Was the vivacious song stylist looking wan and sounding like a shadow of her former self? Would this be a solemnly serious occasion? Forget about it.

"This is like one of those old variety shows that aren't around anymore," Bentyne declared after finishing her first song, grinning that famous grin as she opened the combination fundraiser and release party for her new CD Let's Misbehave: the Cole Porter Songbook (Summit, 2012). "But they're back, and here to stay."

With that, the artist delivered on her promise by sailing into another pair of tunes from the recording, "It's Delovely" and "Let's Misbehave," caressing Porter's famously fun-loving and life-embracing lyrics with an enthusiasm and energy that sent a warming frisson of electricity through the crowd. It is certain no one was left thinking this would be just another polite jazz concert, suitable for the hardwood floors of a recital hall. All who knew her for the sensation she had created with The Manhattan Transfer in 1979 when she joined Tim Hauser, Janis Siegel and Alan Paul, and helped usher in a decade of the most memorable vocal jazz since Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, and again with her solo debut on the Mark Isham-produced Something Cool (Columbia, 1992), were treated to the best news possible. Cheryl Bentyne was well and truly back.

Frequent Bentyne collaborator Mark Winkler and Charmaine Clamor, an L.A. area notable, did a memorably campy version of his composition "Sweet Spot," a nice piece of writing that the duo played for all it was worth. But it was Gina Eckstine, daughter of iconic singer and big band pioneer Billy Eckstine, who got the show revved up into a higher gear and rolling in earnest. Not only did this mysteriously underrated singer take command of the stage as she embraced the audience, her power and control were something to behold. She is that rare vocalist who can find a note and sustain it without losing a bit of steam, and without the wavering pitch problems that overcome many a lesser singer.

Quite aside from her technical skills, Eckstine's performance was reminiscent of a bygone era when the blues was not an intellectual exercise, but a feeling, and when jazz was a music that gave people emotional release and made them happy. So when she grabbed the microphone and took on her father's "Prisoner of Love" and "I Apologize," she did it with the authority and presence of big band-era singers like Ella Fitzgerald. With more exposure, this singer could easily be trumping the pale offerings of the thin-voiced waifs who struggle to find middle C.

The dynamic seesaw of the evening's program dipped and slowed a bit with the man-and-wife duo of singer Andrea Baker and reed man Steve Wilkerson, with tunes like Baker's cool, throaty rendition of "I've Got the World On A String" and Wilkerson's variously fiery, albeit unobtrusive ascents on the clarinet, music played with a gracious gentleness that worked well in leavening the many high-powered performances.

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