George Gershwin would have been 96 on Monday--an occasion observed that evening on the sheltered patio of Demario's, a cozy Italian bistro. About 50 listeners joined bassist/singer Jack Prather and a splendid crew--singers Stephanie Haynes (Mrs. Prather) and Dewey Erney, pianist Jack Reidling and drummer Paul Kreibich--for some real oldies but goodies, the timeless music of a genius whose death the Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music has called "the greatest single loss to music in the U.S. this century."
It was a real dandy of a show, but then, what isn't when Haynes is aboard? (And why is it that this woman--to these ears one of the top five jazz singers on the planet--lacks a record deal and rarely works the major rooms?)
Dressed in a red bolero jacket with black lapels, black slacks and shimmering circular earrings (the guys all wore tuxedos), Haynes really strutted her stuff. "Summertime" was done at a slow simmer, as it should be, with a catchy bass part from Prather. Haynes seemed to surround the words with clouds of breath and at the end, on the words "with Mommy and Daddy standing by," she faded into a whisper, then silence.
She opened "The Man I Love" with a emotional reading of the verse, then turned her husky alto loose on the familiar melody, moving the words around and adding blues inflections so things would swing handily--a Haynes trademark. The notes were as bright as midnight on the Las Vegas strip.
Her tour de force, though, was "I Loves You Porgy" as she pulled out any stops she hadn't already, ascending to the top of her range with raw, operatic-like power but retaining the emotional qualities that drive the song.
Erney, another underrated and under-employed vocal ace, sang superbly in a fat purr of a tenor that provided a fine complement to Haynes' exuberance. During "Somebody Loves Me," he jostled the words, singing them as if he were a drummer; he likewise sauntered through "A Foggy Day," stretching some words out like rubber bands, chopping others off neatly.
When he and Haynes got together for "Bess, You Is My Woman Now," his soft, breathy notes provided a nice contrast and counter melody to her more dramatic ones.
Pianist Reidling mixed jazz and pizazz enthusiastically with flashy, bubbling lines that lit songs up yet left room for the singers. His unaccompanied "Rhapsody in Blue," on the electronic Clavinova, was stunning. Playing from memory, he was near-flawless, moving seamlessly from one section to another, delivering the choice melodies with feeling and the arduous technical passages with precision.
Prather's bass buoyed the singers while Kreibich kept crisp, natty time. Other selections included "They Can't Take That Away From Me," "S'Wonderful," "Embraceable You" and "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off."
A libretto by Prather offered tidbits of information--dates song were written, shows they came from, anecdotes--that further illuminated the joyful proceedings.
* "An Evening of George Gershwin" repeats Monday at Demario's, 17 Monarch Bay Plaza (on Pacific Coast Highway at Crown Valley Parkway), Dana Point. 6:30 and 8:30 p.m. Cover: $6. (714) 240-9436.