Couth and Coolth

The Cream of Cabaret Month

This year's Grammy Awards were dispensed just before March was proclaimed New York's cabaret month by Mayor Giuliani, in one of his more benign recent gestures. No Grammys were presented to cabaret performers, however. The music industry as it operates today has such little regard for entertainers strutting their stuff in small rooms that most such artists— no matter how dedicated they are to honoring the American songbook and adding new entries— are relegated to obscure labels. In fact, these labels are often so obscure they may be the individual artist's own, for which recording funds have to be raised in dribs and drabs. The result is that cabaret has acquired connotations of vanity production, which as frequently as not isn't the case. Were a Grammy committee on the lookout next year to correct past oversights, the following would seem worthy candidates:

The Song of the Alpha Male, Michael Garin (MBG, 456 W. 25th St., Suite 2, NYC 10001). Five nights a week the main monkey at the East Side's Monkey Bar, Garin throws the best party in town. The apotheosis of a piano-bar retainer, he fields whatever requests he receives from the after-office-hours crowd. This can mean Edith Piaf's "Non, Je ne regrette rien" segueing into "Blueberry Hill," as it does here. The champagne-and-bubbles room atmosphere is missing on disc; the compensation is more musical experimentation. A loose-chorded "Is You Is, or Is You Ain't (My Baby)" attests to his jubilant playing; "My Hand," a celebration of masturbation with every possible pun included, attests to his skillful writing.

The Girls of Summer, Barbara Fasano (Human Child, 144 W. 72nd St., Suite 3B, NYC 10023). It's a cabaret cliché that acts are often autobiographies in song. When performers aren't singer-songwriters, they have to forage elsewhere. Fasano incorporates, among others, Springsteen's "Thunder Road" and the Cyndi Lauper­Mary Chapin-Carpenter "Sally's Pigeons" with Stephen Sondheim's "The Girls of Summer" and Don Henley's "The Boys of Summer" to suggest the herstory of a girl growing into a sultry, nostalgic woman. The singer has burning almond eyes, and her strong alto is burnt almond, too. Rick Jensen provides arrangements that are all couth and coolth.

Spring Harvest, Rick Jensen (The Doctor Is In Music, 304 W. 19th St., Suite 3B, NYC 10025). If there's such a thing as cabaret folk-rock, Jensen— a frequently elliptical songwriter whose spiritual forebears include James Taylor, and a post­Billy Joel piano man with extra strength in his fingers and throat— is promoting it. He also lays down some cosmopolitan funk, and a sly sense of humor emerges in "My Baby and Me," about a happily hitched S&M couple. Rock pistons Karen Mack and Lina Koutrakos back him on vocals, as does— on a rediscovered track— the late, pure-voiced Nancy La Mott.

Nowadays, Marcia Lewis (Original Cast, Box 496, Georgetown, CT 06829). Lewis is a reminder of that receding age when cabaret was performers taxiing over to entertain after the curtain came down on their Broadway show. She comes from a world where people talk about "landing the laugh" and "putting buttons on numbers," and she's mastered the techniques. All but four of these 18 songs are from musicals, comic and otherwise. She takes stage with them as she's done for the past three years, playing Mama Morton in Chicago. It's not all laughs, though the ballads don't quite match the yuk-song verve.

Ask Me Again, Charles Cermele (Archangel Productions, 99 E. 4th St., Suite 2G, NYC 10003). Unless Tony Bennett is singing, it's hard to hear songs written in the first half of the 20th century anywhere now but in cabarets, where many singers dedicate themselves to dusting off what are in danger of becoming museum pieces. Cermele is one of the most fastidious with the figurative Lemon Pledge. A funny man about his Jersey upbringing where the pasta circulated with the patter, he mostly shelves the jokes to apply his baritone carefully— sometimes too carefully— to George and Ira Gershwin (the little-known title song is theirs), Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer. One highlight: his wiseguy "Come on-a My House."

Some Other Time, Andrea Marcovicci (Cabaret, P.O. Box 4034, Garden City, NY 11531). Tributes are a cabaret staple. Often the formula is simply exploitative, but not with Marcovicci. She's so thorough when she researches a subject that her diligence has been rewarded with an honorary degree from Trinity. This document of her recent salute to grande dame Mabel Mercer may be an oblique way of saying she's assuming the mantle, but it's also done with Mercer's until-now peerless emotive talents and respect for lyrics: Marcovicci examines every word. Sometimes lax about hitting the right notes, her soprano is directly on pitch with the Cole Porter­Cy Coleman­Carolyn Leigh ilk. Anyone interested in knowing what cabaret sounded like then, sounds like now, and will sound like in the foreseeable future gets the survey course here.

 
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