The Beloved and I went to see and hear the fine singer Hilary Gardner and her band last night at Jazz at Kitano: a wonderful seventy-minute performance. Her musicians were impressive: Jason Marshall on tenor and soprano saxophone; Ehud Asherie on piano; Elias Bailey on string bass; Kevin Kanner on drums.
That instrumental quartet began the set with a leisurely but pushing I’VE NEVER BEEN IN LOVE BEFORE. Quickly, we noticed Kanner’s boyish exuberance at the drums; Bailey’s steadiness; Asherie’s inventive ebullience, and Marshall — someone new to me but a splendid mix of Rollins and Southwestern passion (think of Buddy Tate). I couldn’t predict where his phrases would land, but his lines had a speaking grace.
Hilary has been offering songs that celebrate (or delineate) life in New York, relating to her CD, THE GREAT CITY. Often those songs have been dryly witty, salty glances at life-as-it-is-lived in Manhattan. (There are very few songs about the boroughs, one notices. Apologies to Staten Island and the Bronx, especially.)
She began with THE GREAT CITY, whose message isn’t the optimistic fraudulence of “If you can make it here . . . ” Rather, the song suggests that one wants to keep a clear path to the exit at the same time one enters the Manhattan cosmos. WHEELERS AND DEALERS had much of the same balsamic-vinegar flavor.
But there were love songs — Ronnell Bright’s cheerful SWEET PUMPKIN, the more subdued THIS LITTLE TOWN IS PARIS (associated with Beverly Kenney), the wry tale of an urban love that is transmitted but not received, SWEETHEART — sung by the imagined protagonist, who is moony over a male customer she waits on in the doughnut shop. Another of Hilary’s creations was the love song to the lost world, WHEN THE WORLD WAS YOUNG. (For the first time, I thought that this song — in its possibly melodramatic verse and more familiar chorus — has a sideways kinship with JUST A GIGOLO.)
The performances I have briefly listed would act as convincing evidence that Hilary is a superb singer: her multi-colored voice, her unerring time, her fine but subtle dramatic sense, her wit, her swinging ability to let the song pour through her rather than insisting that the song sit behind her.
But the show had three triumphs where she outdid herself. And the remarkable connection among those three performances was that they were all of “familiar” songs, which could in other hands have been formulaic, predictable, unsurprising. Hilary didn’t “do” anything to these three songs to change them — the songs didn’t need it — but she embodied them with deep feeling, freshness, and ardor. The first was, in honor of the season, ‘T’IS AUTUMN. I love the song for its melody and its sentimental associations, but think the lyrics alternate between the touching, the almost too-cute, and the inept: “La-di-da, di-da-di-da,” to me, is a lyricist being sweetly unambitious. But I love “the birds got together / to chirp about the weather,” with unshakable affection. Hilary took the song at a slightly slower tempo, letting us hear its sweet whimsicality without a trace of contemporary irony. When she sang, “My holding you close really is no crime,” I thought I could see several men in the row in front of us lean forward hopefully, expectantly. They had fallen under her spell and the song’s.
Then, she essayed Dave Frishberg’s DO YOU MISS NEW YORK? Frishberg’s songs are so remarkable in themselves, and many of us remember their composer singing them at the piano, so it is an act of courage for other singers to attempt them in his shadow. Hilary’s version was only a shade slower than I might have expected (the better to let us savor Frishberg’s brilliant witty, wry poetry) but I have never heard a more poignant version. The song came alive in all its rueful splendor, and it was as if I could hear both Frishberg (as composer) and Hilary (as enactor) discovering just how much they did miss New York, and that the loss was irreparable.
And the sly apex of this trio was Hilary’s sly take on YOU CAME A LONG WAY FROM ST. LOUIS — with its satiric, punchy verse. I’ve heard some singers deliver that song with the emphatic dismissiveness of someone slamming the door on an ex-lover or an unmasked pretender. Hilary gave the song a bluesy, groovy slither — as if to say, “Look, pal. Other people may not have noticed that you are really tofu masquerading as something else — but I know.” Not angry or mocking, but amused.
I felt as if I had heard these three songs for the first time. The audience didn’t stand and cheer (they only do that in the movies or for drum solos, I think) but they should have.
You will note that no videos accompany this posting. I’d decided I wanted to enjoy the show, pretending to be more like my peers than someone peering through the viewfinder. So you will have to find Hilary at one of her gigs for yourself! Or you can purchase her CD. Or you can find her at the next concert of the Sidney Bechet Society — Monday, October 14 — with Evan Christopher, Randy Reinhart, and other notables.
But don’t ignore the exceedingly talented Hilary Gardner. If you catch on to her subtle beauties, then you can say, in Frishberg’s words, “Me, too.”
May your happiness increase!