by Frank Kuznik
His voice may not be what it once was, but Al Jarreau is still a consummate entertainer. In last night’s appearance with the Cleveland Orchestra, he served up fresh arrangements of his big hits, kept up a nonstop scat and patter between songs, and teased and flirted with the adoring audience that packed Severance Hall.
No one has an outstanding voice at the age of 72, but Jarreau comes close. No longer smooth and supple like honey, his singing has the tone and flavor of mature wine, rich and mellowed by aging. Much of it is done in a low voice that approaches a whisper at times, or gets lost in the big orchestra sound. But he can still crank up clear, strong solos, and occasionally reach deep for sharp highs and resonant lows.
And to judge from the crowd last night, most of his fans do not come for his singing. They come for the endearing stage presence and impish behavior, the repartee with fans sitting in the front rows, the opportunity to spontaneously sing along to “God Bless America,” and the playful approach to practically every note of songs that have been staples of his repertoire for decades.
Jarreau started the show and came back after intermission the same way — slipping onto the stage almost unnoticed from the wings, microphone already in hand, and scatting his way to the center. He set a groovy vibe immediately with “Alonzo,” and by the second song, “We Got By,” had the audience waving back at him. He stopped long enough to gently chide some late arrivals and take note of the “very special environment” of Severance before launching into a Gershwin medley that triggered stray lyrics and phrases from other Broadway favorites.
Jarreau snickered a bit at President Obama’s singing efforts before suggesting that he try “We’re in This Love Together,” inviting the audience to sing along. The orchestra sat on their hands for “Midnight Sun,” which gave Jarreau’s jazz combo a chance to show what they could do — Larry Williams with long, flowing lines on keyboards, Mark Simmons with some nifty work on drums, and Chris Walker filling in the bottom with solid bass work and backing vocals. And conductor Larry Baird was the unsung hero of the evening, modulating and pausing the orchestra whenever Jarreau suddenly took off on an extended vocal improv.
The singer also paused to jam with individual members of his combo, creating some very tasty licks with Williams and Simmons on “Take Five,” which closed the first half.
It was back to the Broadway in the second half, which opened with selections from West Side Story and segued to The Sound of Music’s “Favorite Things,” capped by an amusing “Climb Every Mountain” coda. And talk about a study in contrasts: Jarreau followed that up with a lively version of Eddie Harris’ “Cold Duck,” with the trio once again stepping up, then dropped back to an orchestral meditation for Bach’s “Air on a G String.” (“I wrote a little lyric to clean that up,” Jarreau said with a mischievous grin.)
The show closed with two big production numbers: A heavily orchestrated “Mornin’” with the drums out front, bringing the crowd to their feet, and a lush, upbeat treatment of “Spain,” with real live castanets. One of the few moments when Jarreau showed his age came when he soaked up the applause, then announced his encore without leaving the stage, explaining, “All that walkin’ back and forth isn’t necessary.”
“After All” put a nice finish on the evening, though the audience seemed more taken with Jarreau’s parting shot: “Invite me back, OK? This was so fun.”