Jarreau Borders on Excess; O'Day Directs Energies to Style
NEW YORK — AL JARREAU
At Carnegie Hall.
With jazz vocalizing, there's a fine line between enhancing a song and trivializing it, and singer Al Jarreau, performing at Carnegie Hall as part of the JVC Jazz Festival, crossed it with one of his first numbers. Performing Elton John's ''Your Song,'' the singer took this quiet and moving ballad and, with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of tics and mannerisms, stripped it of feeling.
Jarreau's voice is, to be sure, an impressive instrument, and he can do amazing things with it. In just the opening minutes of his concert, he had it swooping and swirling, going from a high falsetto to a deep bass rumble, and he made sounds that resembled gargling, far-off explosions, and the noise of heavy machinery operating at various speeds.
Coupled with the contortions he went through, including various kung fu poses, it did not make for a relaxing evening, and there were more than the usual number of walkouts. To be fair, there were many fans who had acquired a taste for Jarreau's peculiarities, and who cheered vociferously.
The singer was in an ebullient mood, warning the audience from the beginning that ''this is not Mozart'' and making many jokes about Carnegie Hall, at one point confusing it with the nearby Carnegie Deli. He didn't even seem to mind when one fan enthusiastically called out a request for ''Turn Your Love Around,'' a song that happened to be a hit for George Benson, although Jarreau joked that he should rip up the offender's ticket stub.
There were times, to be sure, when one could simply marvel at Jarreau's capabilities, particularly when he was performing such showoff jazz pieces as Chick Corea's ''Spain (I Can Recall)'' and Dave Brubeck's ''Take Five.'' He also managed to quiet down occasionally, to positive effect, in songs like ''Teach Me Tonight'' and his huge pop hit, ''We're in This Love Together.''
But even in these moments, the singer's effectiveness was cut down by the too-loud sound mix, which transformed his five-piece electric band to a deafening roar (he did seem aware of the problem, complaining that the acoustics in the hall weren't conducive to amplified instruments).
The evening opened with Zap Mama, a five-woman a cappella singing group also devoted to the art of vocal improvisation.
Performing music that combines African, Arabic, and even Pygmy influences into a blend of pop and soul, they too, sometimes skirted the edge of excess. But their voices seamlessly blended together in superb arrangements, and their highly percussive music had a rhythmic quality that was consistently engaging. The highlight of the entire evening was their soaring rendition of ''I Shall Be Released,'' in which they were joined by Jarreau.
At Rainbow & Stars.
Sometimes performers demand attention through sheer indomitable longevity. Anita O'Day is an example; this veteran singer has been performing for half a century. Appearing as part of the JVC Jazz Festival at Rainbow & Stars, the elegant cabaret at the top of Rockefeller Center, she proved that technique and sheer spirit can overcome any deficiencies.
O'Day is a jazz singer, a song stylist less concerned with emotion than with applying a breezy, swinging dynamic to her material. Her voice is fragmented, with a severely limited range and little power to project. But her sense of style is intact, and there is a fluidity to her delivery that would make younger vocalists green with envy.
Her sense of command applies to her band's arrangements as well; when she wasn't singing, she was delivering instructions to her jazz quartet regarding tempos and volume with the authority of a drill sergeant.
Suitably, most of her material was up-tempo, including numbers such as ''Let Me Off Uptown'' that she has been performing for 50 years. When she sang it, the years seemed to melt away, and it was easy to imagine that there was a big band behind her and that it was still safe in New York to do as the song suggests.