“I want to thank you from the bottom of my new heart,” Peggy Lee told a clearly sympathetic and receptive audience Wednesday on her return to the Westwood Playhouse. Not a literal statement, of course, but it was known to almost everyone present that the occasion marked her first performance after six months on the sidelines because of heart-bypass surgery.
Inevitably, there was a sense of curiosity in the crowd. How had the long months of hospitalization, the inability even to work out those legendary vocal cords, affected her sound? How would she look in the wake of her ordeal?
The answers were reassuring. Slimmed down, radiant in a white gown and coat with white fur trimmings, wearing shades to relieve eye strain, she simultaneously reassured anyone who may have been expecting visual or vocal signs of wear and tear.
True, the concert was brief, composed of two 45-minute sets; this was a time for pacing rather than pushing. If now and then the sound was minimally less strong, if she held on to a few final notes not quite as long as you might have expected, it really mattered little. The warmth and passion still radiated their personal glow.
As has been her policy for some years, she presented a well-diversified program of the old familiars, which her fans would find conspicuous by their absence, along with contemporary works. In the latter category, Paul Williams’ “Love Dance” was particularly moving, as was “Let It Go,” a new song written by Lee in collaboration with her guitarist John Chiodini.
The intense Latin groove she established long ago with her startling transmogrification of “Lover” was used to similarly devastating effect on “Just One of Those Things” and, to a lesser degree, on “Love Me or Leave Me.” Another long-established Peggy Lee custom has been the leavening of a sometimes melancholy mood with touches of humor. She still tells a good corny joke. “I Won’t Dance” came equipped with drummer Grady Tate (her off-and-on associate for 25 years) supplying a few tongue-in-traps breaks.
First and foremost, though, Lee is the quintessential interpreter of love songs. “I’m Glad There Is You” came across with all the honesty and beauty we have always expected of her, spelled by a brief vibraphone solo by her percussionist, Bob Leatherbarrow. “As Time Goes By” and the all-too-brief closing excerpt from “I’ll Be Seeing You” captured the same gently sentimental essence.
With the bassist Bob Magnusson supplying his always firm foundation on opening night (Jim Hughart takes over for the rest of the engagement), there were many inspiring moments provided by the accompanying group. The only disappointment was Emil Palame. Both as accompanist and soloist he lacked the subtlety and improvisational spirit one has heard in so many great Lee pianists from Jimmy Rowles to Lou Levy to Mike Renzi.
To quote from one of her most durable hits, Peggy Lee clearly is convinced that the time has not arrived for “that final disappointment.” In short, that’s not all there is, and it may even be that the best is yet to come. She closes April 20.