Jazz at Birdland: Melissa Errico and Tony DeSare

Vocalists Melissa Errico and Tony DeSare appeared at Birdland last month. Jersey Jazz Contributing Editor Joe Lang reviews their performances.

Stephen Sondheim has been an inspiration for many club acts and recordings by a variety of performers. Recently, vocalist/musical theater artist Melissa Errico released her second album devoted to Sondheim material, Sondheim in the City (Concord Theatricals Recordings – 100148). This was the basis for her 10-show run at the Birdland Theater, a perfect venue for this intimate show. She was there from February 14-18, with this review based on the first show on February 17. She was superbly supported by pianist/musical director Tedd Firth, bassist David Finck, and drummer Eric Halvorson with trumpeter Bruce Harris contributing on several selections.

Errico is widely recognized as among the premier interpreters of Sondheim’s songs. She has all the assets needed to achieve this, a glorious voice, unfailing intelligence, the musical theater experience to dig into the lyrics and perform them with the flair of an actress, and in this instance, a love for New York City that imbues each selection with an emotional depth that is enhanced by her affection for the Big Apple.

At the outset, Errico stated that she was going to make each of her shows during this Birdland residency different. The advance publicity indicated that she would incorporate some New York City songs by other composers into her mostly Sondheim program. For the show covered in this piece, she stuck to songs from the new album.

Throughout her performance, Errico emphasized the contrasts that exist in New York City, the highs and lows, the appealing and the unappealing, and noted how Sondheim was a master at capturing these dichotomies. This was best illustrated by her pairing of “Opening Doors” from Merrily We Roll Along and “What More Do Need” from Saturday Night. These shows along with Company and Follies, plus the television piece, Evening Primrose, have strong New York City content and provide most of the material for the album.

Errico has done an exceptional job of culling the many songs by Sondheim that could have warranted inclusion in her program to present a vision of the city that covers the spectrum of realities that comprise the essence of New York City and reflect why so many have an intense love affair with NYC.

For this performance, Errico opened with a song that captures the frenetic nature of life in the city, “Another Hundred People,” and followed it with a true rarity, “Dawn,” a description of what the city is like as the sun arises,written for an unproduced film musical, Singing Out Loud.

As the evening progressed, she offered impressive renditions of “Take Me to the World” (Evening Primrose), “Can That Boy Foxtrot,” and “Uptown, Downtown” (cut from Follies), “Anyone Can Whistle” and “Everybody Says Don’t” (Anyone Can Whistle), “Good Thing Going” (Merrily We Roll Along), “Broadway Baby” (Follies), and “Sorry-Grateful” and “Being Alive” (Company). All of the songs from the album were included in the show except for “It Wasn’t Meant to Happen” (cut from Follies) and “The Little Things You Do Together” (Company).

One aspect of any Errico show is her informative connective commentary in which her warmth and sparkling sense of humor shine through consistently. She spoke expansively about her grandmother’s sister Rose who became a Ziegfeld Follies girl. She introduced her mother and father who were in the audience, and then invited her father to join her on the stage to accompany her on a Jule Styne/Comden and Green song, “Never Never Land.”

As a finale, Errico chose a song that she found on a tape of unused songs privately recorded by Sondheim, “Nice Town, But.” This put an exclamation point on the care and depth she employed in researching the extensive Sondheim output.

Having performed in several Sondheim shows, Errico developed a personal relationship with the composer that, while only occasional, deeply affected her choice of material through much of her career. This was evident throughout her thoroughly engaging program.

Keep your eyes open for future opportunities to see Errico perform this material. Adding the album to your music library is highly recommended.

Note: Melissa Errico will be performing Sondheim in the City at 54 Below in New York City on May 7-9. The CD is available at concordtheatricalsrecordings.com).

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Having singer/pianist Tony DeSare back in New York City is always a treat. At the early show on Saturday, February 24, the Birdland Theater was packed with an enthusiastic audience, and DeSare with his bandmates, guitarist Ed Decker, bassist Dylan Shamat, and drummer Michael Klopf, gave the audience just the kind of charismatic performance they had come to see.

DeSare has great chops both vocally and pianistically. He is also an accomplished songwriter as he showed with several self-composed selections sprinkled throughout the show. Decker also got some front and center time, and the influence of his mentor, Bucky Pizzarelli, was evident.

Shabat and Klopf were wonderfully supportive, with each taking full advantage of their solo opportunities.

The program was well paced. DeSare opened with a stand-up version of “Up a Lazy River.” “Baby, Dream Your Dream,” a gem from Sweet Charity eased the pace before he launched into “Somebody Loves Me” with a oh so hip solo by Decker. He then gave a taste of his songwriting with “Paris Will Always Have You,” “A Little Bit Closer”, and the jingle that he wrote under a pressured time deadline, the “Hampton Jitney Song.” That DeSare is an imaginative pianist was evident in his take on “Sabre Dance,” giving a frenetic ride to the song that he calls “Sabre Dance Boogie.”

Decker returned to the spotlight as the sole accompanist for DeSare on “I’ve Got a Crush on You.” Next up was “Just in Time” followed by another catchy original, “New Orleans Tango.”

DeSare then launched into a multi-style solo piano rendition of “Fly Me to The Moon” before finally bringing in the rest of his combo as he rendered the words to the song. It was then time for a spirited approach to “Hallelujah, I Just Love Her So.”

One of those present in the audience was a long-time DeSare enthusiast whom he acknowledged by singing the gentleman’s favorite song, “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square,” accompanied by only Shamat’s bass. This was a nice gesture that demonstrated how much DeSare appreciates the many folks who offer consistent support. The show wound down with a clever DeSare original “Nothing Left to Say,” and closed with a solid, swinging version of “I’m Gonna Live Till I Die,” featuring a dynamic solo by Klopf.

At the end of the set, the audience rose to its feet to acknowledge the splendid hour-plus of exciting music they had just experienced.–JOE LANG

Note: Tony DeSare will be giving a concert at The Berrie Center at Ramapo College in Mahwah on May 4. Tickets can be ordered at (https://www.ramapo.edu/berriecenter/event/tony-desare-quartet/).

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