Of those performers who can genuinely be described as beyond category, one surely is pianist/singer Dorothy Donegan.
Opening a two-week engagement at the Cinegrill on Tuesday night, the 60ish, jazz-based, cabaret-styled artist hit the stage running with a group of high-speed improvisations, and then proceeded to accelerate through blues, funk, high comedy and musical impressions of her favorite singers.
Like Erroll Garner and Ahmad Jamal, Donegan paints her sounds and rhythms in broad strokes, with dramatic contrasts of darkness and light and swirling bursts of abstract energy. Her first two selections, for example--the standards "Darn That Dream" and "Here's That Rainy Day"--were filled with finger-snapping note flurries and rich harmonic alterations, with the combination of the two sometimes resulting in near-avant-garde dissonances.
On "My Funny Valentine," however, Donegan used a gentler touch, revitalizing this sometimes overdone chestnut by gently and lyrically probing into its softer, beneath-the-surface textures.
A set of impressions that ranged from a sardonic Lena Horne to an almost disturbingly accurate Billie Holiday (singing "She's Funny That Way") showcased the entertainer side of Donegan's personality. She continued with a mini-history of jazz piano styles (including Scott Joplin and Teddy Wilson, among others) and climaxed her set in a brilliantly theatrical version of "It's All Right With Me."
By the time she was finished, it was clear that pinning any kind of label on Donegan--a performer whose skills move her so easily from pure jazz to pure entertainment--would be a waste of time. But hearing her might just be one of the very best ways to spend an evening.
Donegan continues at the Cinegrill through April 25 as part of a series titled "Legendary Ladies of Piano and Song." She will be followed in the next few months by Anita O'Day, Ella Mae Morse, Monica Lewis, Rose Murphy and Nellie Lutcher.