I first heard Barbara Rosene sing on a compact disc — the 2003 Stomp Off “Ev’rything’s Made For Love,” which I’d obtained serendipitously. Bob Rusch of Cadence thought I would take pleasure in this music, and (as is often the case) he was splendidly correct. I loved the sounds — plural, not singular — of Barbara’s pure, clear voice, tenderly exploring the layers of feeling in a ballad, being naughty on a double-entendre Twenties song, or simply swinging her way exultantly through one of those unashamedly happy songs that used to be the fashion. Although Barbara often sang obscure songs, she was more than an archivist delighting in artistic esoterica.
Some singers sing at the song, or, worse, they present it at a distance with ironic quotation marks around it. Barbara immerses herself in the emotions of the lyrics and the melody, uniting herself with the song. Although some of her material was peripherally connected to girl singers who chose to present themselves as Twenties Lolitas (little girls lispiing through the lyrics), Barbara is serious when her material is, riotous when the song calls for it.
In October 2004, I was in the audience for a late-night jam session at the Cajun, where Barbara, at someone’s request, got up and sang a touching FOOLS RUSH IN. Later, I introduced myself to her as the Phantom Reviewer, and was delighted by her genuineness. She and Kevin Dorn are close friends, so I began to see Barbara sing more often in a variety of places — from an Episcopal church in Hicksville, New York to an uptown club whose name I forget to the now-eradicated Jacques-Imo’s.
All of this is prelude to what the Beloved and I enjoyed last night: Barbara and her New Yorkers appearing at Iridium for two sets — an engagement I hope will be repeated soon and often. She always surrounds herself with the best musicians, and the band last night was choice: Kevin on drums, Conal Fowkes on piano, Doug Largent on bass, Michael Hashim on alto and tenor, Matt Szemela on violin, and Jon-Erik Kellso on trumpet.
The lovely thing about Barbara’s Iridium gig was that the room was packed with quietly appreciative people, many of whom knew each other, so it was like a reunion — or a party in someone’s large living room. The Beloved and I sat at a table with the cheerful Joe and Carla Samolduski, the people responsible for Barbara’s appearances at “Cabaret Night” at the Hicksville church. All that was missing was the basket of potato chips in front of us.
The music began with a positively rambunctious THERE’LL BE SOME CHANGES MADE. When the gleeful dust had settled, Barbara chatted with the audience about her song choices. She believes in what she sings: GET OUT AND GET UNDER THE MOON is not just a series of words for her. Matt Szemela added his sweet countrified violin to the ensemble, a wonderful bonus. Acknowledging her debt to Annette Hanshaw, Barbara began a deeply serious (although rhythmically mobile) version of AM I BLUE. Jon-Erik growled ominously behind her, and Michael Hashim explored the low register of his horn, reminding me of Ben Webster at his Fifties best. The mood brightened dramatically when Barbara offered a chipper rendition of LOVABLE AND SWEET, composed by Oscar Levant, rhyming “nice man” and “iceman” for naughty reasons. DEEP NIGHT, which Barbara dedicated to her late father, who loved the song, was a sultry tango. Barbara is a gracious and generous leader, so she gave the band a chance to romp on I WONDER WHERE MY BABY IS TONIGHT, which featured a patented Hashim stop-time chorus and two jammed ensemble choruses, the first quiet, the second shouting. A delicate IT WAS ONLY A SUN SHOWER followed; during Michael’s solo, Barbara sat on the piano bench next to Conal, her eyes closed, rocking happily to the beat. A brisk IT HAD TO BE YOU came next: Barbara sang the familiar lyrics as if the song was new, and Conal provided a rocking minimalist solo (Basie without the cliches), supported in high style by Doug and Kevin.
Readers familiar with this blog might be asking themselves, “Where was Flip all this time?” “Struggling to get out of my pocket,” would be the answer. Flip was thrilled to be at Iridium (it was his first time) and he wanted to get close to the stage, but I kept on trying to quiet him down. People had the audacity to be sitting in front of us and their heads were in the way; Flip wriggled and jumped so vigorously that I thought the waitstaff were going to ask us to leave.
When it was clear that Barbara’s set was more than half over, I took Flip out of my pocket and aimed him at the stage — thinking that the Iridium staff would hardly eject us so close to the end. (I was right.) The result is that you are now able to see and hear some of what Barbara and her New Yorkers did so beautifully last night.
Here’s Irving Berlin’s melancholy SAY IT ISN’T SO, a fully realized dramatic performance without a hint of “acting”:
Barbara featured the band on AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’, which offers wonderful hot solos and ensemble joys. I especially love the trades between Doug and Kevin at the end, reminiscent of the playful jazz conversations Milt Hinton and Jo Jones had so memorably:
And something even more special: Barbara’s ukulele feature. Faithful readers will know of my recent (and continuing) ukulele obsession — I’m still finding my way around the fingerboard. But I was thrilled when Barbara unsheathed a soprano ukulele and put on her own one-woman show. It’s not that she’s the East Coast version of Lyle Ritz (or at least not yet) but she encapsulates another world in her performance of KEEPIN’ OUT OF MISCHIEF NOW — as if we were sitting on the porch with her and she decided it was time for a little music. It’s charming! And her whistling is both casual and accomplished:
Finally, a rocking version of MY BLACKBIRDS ARE BLUEBIRDS NOW — one of several songs that exploited this avian metaphor. I feel sorry for the poor blackbirds, who got a bad reputation as emblems of bad luck. All because of that one flying terrorist who pecked off the housemaid’s nose, if I remember correctly? Bluebirds are fine, of course — but the blackbirds swung. Here’s Barbara and her New Yorkers:
Barbara says that she is trying to keep this music alive without turning into the guardian of a time capsule. That’s a tall order, but she is doing it heroically every time she sings, and she did it splendidly last night. I hope these homegrown video clips convey something of her special gifts. She is The Real Thing.