JAZZ REVIEW : Merci, Mercer: A Way With Words


As the members of the Great American Music Company are making very clear in their moving and enchanting tribute at Demario's, our musical world would have been a much poorer place had Johnny Mercer not been part of it.

Mercer, "The Bard of Savannah," was, with Lorenz Hart, one of the first kings of American popular lyrics, a genius who put words to 1,500 songs before his death in 1976 at age 66. Among those songs are many that practically everyone knows: "Moon River," "The Days of Wine and Roses," "Autumn Leaves," "Come Rain or Come Shine," "I Remember You."

Last week, in the relaxed ambience of Demario's patio, the Company--singers Stephanie Haynes and Dewey Erney, bassist/singer Jack Prather, pianist Dick Shreve and drummer Paul Kreibich--treated about 50 enthralled listeners to a generous sampling of these wares, from congenial upbeat numbers such as the apropos opener "Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive" to such achingly poignant pieces as "Fools Rush In" and "When the World Was Young."

The company, a class act if ever there were one, delivered these songs with spirit, panache, emotion and pure musicality. Haynes and Erney, especially, were in excellent form.

Prather has been putting together tributes to songwriters for about 15 years, having started at such clubs as Eric's and the Ivy in Laguna Beach, where he worked with Haynes, pianist Kent Glenn and others. For the past 18 months, he and his current company have been at Demario's, offering tributes to Gershwin, Ellington, Rodgers & Hart and Cole Porter.

And now Mercer. The show (at which Prather offers a biographical libretto to introduce the selections), flows very smoothly, highlighting the lyricist's asso ciations with such composers as Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen, Hoagy Carmichael and Henry Mancini.

The Kern medley began with Haynes offering an exotically slow "Dearly Beloved" from the Fred Astaire-Rita Hayworth film "You Were Never Lovelier." Then Erney delivered "I'm Old Fashioned," his engaging, pale-as-lager voice lending a nice jazz feeling to the lyrics ("the sound of rain, upon my window pane, the starry song that April sings . . .").

In the Carmichael segment, the cheery "Lazybones," done in a breezy manner by Prather, led to the gorgeous "Skylark," on which Haynes, a jazz singer par excellence, pulled out the stops. At one point, she found a way to sing the title with 10 notes instead of the requisite two. Erney joined her for a chortling rendition of "In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening"--Mercer's first Oscar winner (from 1951's "Here Comes the Bride")--which raised smiles throughout the room.

The Arlen numbers included the vibrant "My Shining Hour" and "Come Rain or Come Shine" (usually treated as a ballad, it was played to a robust semi-bossa beat by the ardent team of Shreve, Kreibich and Prather).

Haynes was also stunning on two very slow songs, Rube Bloom's "Fools Rush In" and David Raksin's "Laura." Done as a waltz, "Fools" was rife with emotion, particularly when Haynes pleaded the climactic "so open up your heart, and let this fool rush in."

* The Great American Music Company salutes Johnny Mercer tonight at 6:30 and 8:30 at Demario's, 17 Monarch Bay Plaza, Dana Point. $7 cover, $10 food minimum. (714) 240-9436. Wednesday and Oct. 18, the group will do a tribute to Duke Ellington at 6:30 p.m. at Gustaf Anders in the South Coast Plaza Village in Santa Ana. $8 cover, no minimum. (714) 668-1737.

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