Michael Feinstein: Championing classic American songs

Howard Reich

11:31 AM CDT, September 25, 2012


In our time, few musicians have addressed the classic American pop song with the scholarly attention of Michael Feinstein – and few scholars have performed this repertory with Feinstein's panache.

So Feinstein's performance this weekend at the Auditorium Theatre stands as a significant event for anyone who sees the songs of the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Jimmy Van Heusen, Johnny Mercer and their peers as something more than light entertainment. In truth, this work is to American music what the songs of Franz Schubert are to the European classical tradition: core repertory that helps define a culture.

Feinstein has spent his career championing that premise and encouraging audiences to understand it through his books, radio broadcasts and, perhaps most important, the Michael Feinstein Great American Songbook Initiative, an archive and arts center in Carmel , Ind.

So why did a talented singer-pianist position himself as a cultural advocate?

"There was a time when music played a much more important role in our society, and it was as essential to our lives and as comforting as eating Wheaties in the morning and making family outings to the park on Sunday," writes Feinstein in his new book, "The Gershwins and Me" (Simon & Schuster).

"As a kid growing up in the sixties and seventies, I caught the tail end of the rose-colored time and am startled at the way the arts have been diminished, to the detriment of our society. The level of communal significance they once played is largely unfathomable to our contemporary world and I literally cry sometimes at what we have lost. Where are the songs that we can all sing together – not just some of us, but all of us?

"But that old music has turned out to be longer-lasting and more important to our world than we realized."

Indeed, the music thrives, albeit in niches: in jazz clubs and cabarets, where musicians continuously transform it; on TV shows and movies, where it instantly establishes an earlier time frame and an air of elegance; and, of course, in Feinstein's labors on stage and page.

Yet Feinstein is the first to admit that he has been fighting an uphill battle.

"I live in sort of a bubble, in the sense that my career has always been against the mainstream," says Feinstein. "There are always people who will say, 'It's not going to work.'

"From the time I started in piano bars, people said, 'You can't play those old songs, no one will come to hear them.'"

But they did come, surely persuaded by Feinstein's passion for vintage repertoire and his ardent way of delivering it. His musical approach is unabashedly historic, with ample use of vibrato and a ferociously earnest delivery, but he has brought this music to uncounted listeners who likely wouldn't have discovered it without him.

Though his Feinstein's at Loews Regency cabaret in Manhattan will close at the end of the year, when the hotel launches a major renovation, he vows that he'll find another home for it.

More important, he's startled to learn, he says, that in this hip-hop era, young people are making the same musical discoveries he did as a teenager, thanks partly to technologies unavailable in his own youth.

"I meet kids who know who Ethel Waters and Martha Raye are," says Feinstein, referring to two once-fabled performers who are finding new generations of fans on YouTube and elsewhere.

"The great thing about technology today is that young people have access that was unheard of years ago. …

"The audience is eclectic and ever-evolving."

Thanks, in significant part, to Feinstein's work.

Michael Feinstein will perform with Jeff Lindberg's Chicago Jazz Orchestra at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress Pkwy; $32-$92; 800-982-2787 or auditoriumtheatre.org.

New wave of CDs

This week looms large for jazz album releases:

Anat Cohen: "Claroscuro" (Anzic Records). With "Claroscuro," the superb clarinetist shows why her stature as soloist and bandleader remains on an unstoppable, upward trajectory. Whether negotiating intricate twists and turns of phrase in contemporary music, bringing a New Orleans sensibility to "La Vie en Rose" or reimagining Artie Shaw's "Nightmare" in a stunning duet with clarinetist Paquito D'Rivera, Cohen reaffirms the uncommon versatility of her art. She excels, too, in Brazilian repertoire, as in a haunting reading of the ballad "As Rosas Nao Falam" and a translucent reinvention of Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Olha, Maria" with pianist Jason Lindner.

Dave Douglas: "Be Still" (Greenleaf Music). Douglas ranks among the most creative trumpeter-bandleaders in jazz, the profound lyricism of his playing matched by the innovativeness and conceptual breadth of his work. Both factors resonate in "Be Still," a gathering of hymns and originals that emphasize a hushed spirituality. Douglas places much of the recording's focus on singer-guitarist Aoife O'Donovan, and though her breathy vocals certainly suit the ethereal, folkloric nature of the recording, less O'Donovan and more Douglas would have given this recording some needed heft. For all the lustrous beauty of this disc, its ultra-serene tracks ultimately become a bit repetitive.

Shemekia Copeland: "33 1/3" (Telarc). The Chicago diva proves there's still hope for bona fide blues singing that doesn't pander to contemporary musical fashion. Her imploring, declamatory vocals – fueled by her stripped-to-its-essence band – serves up the blues straight and hard. She snarls "Ain't Gonna Be Your Tattoo" (with insinuating guitar riffs from guest Buddy Guy), lavishes a fat-and-luscious vibrato on "One More Time" (drawn from the repertory of her late father, bluesman Johnny Clyde Copeland) and closes it all with a whispering, incantatory version of Bob Dylan's "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight."

Kurt Elling: "1619 Broadway: The Brill Building Project" (Concord Jazz). After a run of several surprisingly anemic recordings, vocalist Elling makes a welcome move by upping the intensity level somewhat on "1619 Broadway," his homage to the Brill Building, New York's celebrated haven for pop songwriters. Though Elling doesn't approach the technical or creative brilliance of his early work, he provides distinctive, emotional interpretations of nostalgic tunes such as "On Broadway," "You Send Me" and "I Only Have Eyes for You." Each is beautifully sung, though much of the musical interest derives from the atmospheric instrumental accompaniments and from pianist Laurence Hobgood's glistening pianism.

To read more from Howard Reich on jazz, go to chicagotribune.com/reich.


Twitter @howardreich