review: gregory charles

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Gregory Charles
with Jean-Benoit Lasante and Sylvain Bertrand

Café Carlyle, 35 East 76th Street at Madison Avenue
April 3-7, 2012 at 8:45pm
event web site
Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
April 4, 2012 

(L-R) Gregory Charles and Jean-Benoit Lasante. Image by Stephen Sorokoff.

On a clear and mild early Spring evening I present myself early enough to claim a fine viewing location in the storied Café Carlyle for the evening show  This is not my first visit to this locale — last fall’s Elaine Stritch engagement was my first visit to this venue though Bemelmans Bar across the hall has long been familiar to me. This evening I have been invited to hear a 40-something man from Montreal, described in press materials as a television and concert star who has hosted a Canadian television show and a fabulously well attended summer music festival. What I discover in Gregory Charles is a charming stage performer and a formidable musician, accompanied by side men on guitar, on double bass, and a drummer far on the other side of the room from my vantage point who I don’t think I ever see but whose rhythms I enjoy.

Pianist and vocalist Charles begins his set with a string of sweet jazzy standards, beaming his pleasure at being in a classic American cabaret to sing some tunes from the Great American Songbook.  “At Long Last Love” and “On the Sunny Side of the Street” softly swing.  He mentions that his group is basically unrehearsed — by which he apparently means they haven’t run through a set list but will be making it up as they go along, in various ways. He starts out by calling a few numbers himself (each with a key he assigns, then occasionally modifies as his mood or the sound appeals or repels him), all introduced or published on April 4 in various years.  “All of Me” in C (a personal favorite of mine by any musician or vocalist); “Pennies From Heaven” in E-flat becomes a wandering wonderful medley touching upon the spirit of Bobby Short who inhabited this room for decades and the sound of Satchmo with phrases of “It’s a Wonderful World.”  And finally for this section, a spectacular “Are You Lonesome Tonight” in C, in a delicious swaying tango kind of rhythm.

The balance of the show fundamentally entrances and occasionally bores, depending upon one’s musical tastes.  In his own version of “Stump the Band” (a game developed and played for years by Doc Severinson and the NBC Orchestra on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson), Charles asks audience members to submit requests before the show begins from which he selects at random and plays without telling his band what the tune is (they join in).  Charles calls the key, starts in with the number, and sees where they go. (I submitted “Embraceable You” and it was not selected, more’s the pity.)  His formidable musical memory serves him well and he is not stumped. His final random selections include “Layla,” “You’ll Never Know,” “I Kissed A Girl,” “Moves Like Jagger,” “All You Need is Love,” and a few other tidbits including a rousing closer. He calls an audible and saves one song he drew early in the segment for this place on the bill — “The Theme from ‘New York, New York'” evoking Sinatra rather than the originator Minnelli — start spreading the news.

A wide and unpredictable range of tunes, reliant upon your audience mates. This format wears thin for me quickly. Even Severinson knew to play “Stump the Band” for only 10 minutes or so in its original version. I do muse that this ensemble and particularly this charming band leader will be marvelous to enjoy in a traditionally constructed cabaret or concert set list, organized by theme or composer or genre. On the whole, a fabulous introduction to an international star and his teammates.

© Martha Wade Steketee (April 7, 2012)

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