Wednesday, February 18, 2015

66th & Broadway: Jennifer Sheehan on the Upper Westside

Happily, there are a number of artists keeping the Great American Songbook alive, but parts of those standards are falling into disuse. We still get to hear those hummable, catchy choruses, but many verses have all but disappeared from regular performance. Molly Lyons tried to reverse the trend with her 1964 debut LP, Verses Only that was exactly what it sounds like. It was quite pleasant, but not surprisingly, she is mostly remembered today as the wife of guitarist Joe Puma. Jennifer Sheehan does not go that far, but she includes many verses you might not be familiar with in her Songbook concert launching the premiere season of 66th & Broadway this Friday night on New York’s Thirteen, recorded live overlooking Lincoln Center traffic on Manhattan’s fashionable Upper Westside.

Sheehan’s set opener “All the Things You Are” is a perfect example of how the initial verses can help a performer make a tune their own. This is a tune many of us know so well from Dave Brubeck and Dizzy Gillespie, but initially we can’t place “Time and again I’ve longed for adventure.” Sheehan takes it at a slower tempo, but it is a lovely interpretation.

Tracing the development of the American Songbook, Sheehan proceeds to rewind back to what many scholars consider the first canonical American popular song, the Sophie Tucker hit, “Some of These Days.” Again, the opening verses might throw some listeners, but Sheehan attacks the chorus with appealing sassiness.

In appropriate cabaret-style, Sheehan often incorporates her life story into the show, explaining each standard’s personal meaning to her. “How Long has This Been Going On?” made quite an impression on her when she heard Andrea Marcovicci perform it at an early age. Similarly, she first encountered Cole Porter when performed with a youth ensemble. After a somewhat perfunctory melody, she segues into the serious Porter business with an achingly slow and sensitive rendition of “In the Still of the Night.”

She sings “I’ll be Seeing You” as a showstopper in a similar vein, explaining its transformative effect when she performed it for the Alzheimer’s ward of a nursing home. Indeed, Sheehan shows a remarkable grasp of each tune’s dramatic possibilities. Although nearly half her set was penned about one hundred years ago, she widens her focus to include contemporary songwriter Susan Werner’s jazzy “I Can’t Be New,” which is a nice change-up in her program.

While Sheehan regularly plays rooms like the Metropolitan and Feinstein’s, she was classically trained at Julliard—and you can hear a bit of those opera chops come out in her closer “Our Love is Here to Stay.” She has a strong voice, a charismatic stage presence, and a solid grounding in the American Songbook, so she was a shrewd choice to kick-off 66th & Broadway, the newest Tri-State PBS performance series. There’s always room for more Songbook programming. Ably and tastefully supported by pianist-musical director James Followell and bassist Jered Egan, Sheehan puts on a stylish show. Cabaret and American Songbook fans are sure to enjoy it when 66th & Broadway premieres this Friday (2/20) on WNET Thirteen.