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JAZZ REVIEW : Fleeting Moments of Real Magic : Michael Franks Is Pleasant Enough on the Hits, but His Well-Suited New Material Weaves a Spell

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It is rare that a singer comes up with material so suited to his style as Michael Franks has with his new release, “Abandoned Garden.” A collection inspired by his mentor and friend, the late Antonio Carlos Jobim, the album frames Franks’ light, mellow voice and literate lyrics in a number of sad sambas and bossa nova rhythms, tinged with a Brazilian melancholy perfectly suited to Franks’ low-key manner.

The material translated well to live performance at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts on Friday, the first night of a two-night stand. In his opening number, “This Must BeParadise,” Franks’ soft, gentle voice, supported by his own acoustic guitar accompaniment and simple percussion from Manolo Badrena, cast an entrancing spell.

But that spell soon was broken, as Franks added band members and began screening his big hits, drawn from his 20-some years of recording (“the ancient material,” as he called it). Only much later, when he did the title tune from the new album, did the magic return.

It’s hard not to like Franks’ work. His cool, even tones are the perfect complement to the poetically-conscious lyrics he writes.

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There’s a pleasant, safe feeling inside these numbers, and his laid-back way of delivering them is both playful and sincere, and colored with a sense of vulnerability that the touchy-feely among us find particularly attractive.

Songs like “Underneath the Apple Tree,” “One Bad Habit” and “Popsicle Toes,” all of which met with large ovations during this show, can impart a glow to a listener, one that can be both warm and lulling. His material carries airs of well-adjusted happiness that play as well to today’s Prozac nation as they did to the Valium generation before it. But only the new material (especially that title tune with its repeated reference to “the lost Antonio”) carries any strong emotional edge.

Franks, who has shown a knack for enlisting top-shelf musicians for his recording projects, was backed strongly here by a seven-piece band whose competence lent legitimacy to the headliner’s thin vocal talents.

Strong solos came from saxophonist Mike Sims and pianist-musical director Charles Blenzig. The rhythms generated by Badrena, drummer Billy Kilson and bassist Jay Anderson were tight and tasteful on the soft-rockers of the past and on the newer, more rhythmically-involved material.

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But while the band was strong, Franks was not.

Though pitched well inside his limited range, his music showed little heat or passion. Still, Franks is more about his lyrics than their delivery, and when he sings a clever turn of phrase (as when referring to “off-white” lies, or painting a scene in which “the evening slowly dials down the light”), he is at his best.

The opening act, pianist David Benoit, presented his usual competent program, opening strongly with trio numbers that demonstrated a particularly rich way at the keyboard, then descending into a realm of popping electric bass and backbeat to little musical effect.

With “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” and “Linus and Lucy,” he not only paid fine tribute to composer Vince Guaraldi but presented his own harmonically rich, rhythmically smart style in its best light. Benoit’s sensitive reading of Bill Evans’ “Letter to Evan” continues to be another high point of his set.

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