Jessye Norman captivating the small but enthusiastic audience (Photo: Joseph So)
Soprano Jessye Norman and pianist Mark Markham (Photo: Lawrence Lock)
A Celebration of the American Musical Theatre
Jessye Norman, soprano
Mark Markham, piano
Koerner Hall June 28, 8 pm.
Somewhere - West Side Story (Bernstein)
You'll Never Walk Alone - Carousel (Rodgers & Hammerstein)
But Not For Me - Girl Crazy (Gershwin)
I Got Rhythm - Girl Crazy (Gershwin)
The Man I Love - Lady, Be Good (Gershwin)
Sleepin' Bee - House of Flowers (Arlen)
Climb Ev'ry Mountain - Sound of Music (Rodgers & Hammerstein)
Lonely Town - On The Town (Bernstein)
My Man's Gone Now - Porgy and Bess (Gershwin)
A Tribute to the Greats
My Baby just cares for me (Donaldson/Kahn) - For Nina Simone
Stormy Weather (Arlen) - For Lena Horne
Another Man done gone (traditional) - for Odetta
Mack the Knife (Weill) - for Ella Fitzgerald
For Duke Ellington -
Meditation for piano (Mark Markham)
Don't Get Around Much Any More
I've Got it Bad And That Ain't Good
It Don't Mean A Thing if It Ain't Got That Swing
In her prime, the voice of Jessye Norman was a force of nature - opulent, deep, resonant, golden, and totally unforgettable. The soprano from Augusta, Georgia won the ARD international music competition in Munich in the late 1960s and went on to become one of the most celebrated classical singers of our time. By the late 1990's, Norman scaled back her operatic and classical appearances and increasingly migrated to the pop and jazz fields. By the early 21st century, she stopped singing opera entirely - with the occasional exceptions - and re-invented herself as a jazz singer. Last year, she released Roots: My Life, My Song on the Sony label, her first new recording in years. The transformation was complete.
Last evening, Jessye Norman returned to Toronto after an absence of many years. Under the auspices of the TD Toronto Jazz Festival, she sang a program of Broadway standards, with special tribute to the jazz greats the likes of Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald. Looking like the grande dame that she has always been, Jessye sauntered onstage with her familiar gait, to vociferous cheering from a small but adoring audience. She immediately launched into "Somewhere" from West Side Story, followed by "You'll Never Walk Alone" from Carousel, two of the most beloved tunes from the American Songbook. The timbre of the voice was recognizably and unmistakably Jessye. In fortissimos, the sound recalled her glory days. It would be less than honest to not point out that the sound has become leaner, the top more truncated, and there was a pronounced register break which she successfully disguised. She now uses chest voices more liberally than ever. She sang the first half without amplification, and sitting in row K, I had no problem hearing her. In the forte passages, the sound remained impressive. Her enunciation of the text and her expression have gained in depth of feeling with the passage of time. When she sang soft, as in Gershwin's But Not For Me or Bernstein's Lonely Town, it was truly exquisite.
But it was the second half of the program that touched the heart. Paying tribute to the great African American singers of the past, she sang songs dedicated to Nina Simone, Lena Horne, Odetta, Ella Fitzgerald, and Duke Ellington. In tribute to Odetta, Norman sang "Another Man done gone", a traditional song about a woman lamenting the killing of the black men folks. Norman sang it a capella, except for Mark Markham rhythmically pounding his fist on the piano frame - the delivery and the overall effect of the piece was chilling, deeply moving, and totally unforgettable. She concluded the regular program with the famous It Don't Mean a Thing if it Ain't Got That Swing, a real Duke Ellington standard. She gave two encores - a marvelous "Summertime" full of embellishments, and "Amazing Grace" where she accompanied herself on the piano in the first half, and then walked along the stage front to get the audience to join in. It was a magical moment.
I must say that back in the 1980's, I never thought of Norman as someone "who've got that swing" - her recording of pop songs of Cole Porter or Gershwin were always stately, grand, operatic, sung with so much voice that one would not have thought that she could be capable of scaling it back and be true to the music as the pieces were meant to be sung. Well, her transformation the last dozen years into an authentic jazz stylist has truly amazed a lot of her fans. She now sings these with absolute idiomatic style and depth of feeling. I am glad to have had an opportunity to witness the re-invented Jessye Norman. It was too bad that the intimate Koerner Hall was only slightly more than half full, but the enthusiasm of the audience made up for it. Shockingly, they ran out of programs early on. I was one of the dozen or so people scavenging the auditorium for a discarded program after the show. I was told only 200 programs were printed - what could the organizers be thinking?! Two hundred programs, for one of the greatest singers of the past thirty years? I hope the TD Jazz Festival will do better in the future!