An open fan letter…

On seeing Annie Ross at the Metropolitan Room

Going to see Ms. Ross a on a snowy even in January was one of those experiences that reminded me of the difference between good and great – the difference between someone expertly executing music someone who has simply become the music. Ms. Ross is the latter, and she is truly a master of her art. Listening and watching her and her stellar band moved me – so much so that I had to share my excitement. This is a paean of sorts, and reflection on some deeper themes in music, art and age.

If you’re not familiar with Ms. Ross’s work (she’s a jazz singer and lyricist) you can fix that by going to see her any Tuesday night at the Metropolitan Room at 9:30. http://metropolitanroom.com/show.cfm?id=62517

One thing Ms. Ross proves, that’s seen less and less, is that swingin’ jazz interpretation is absolutely connected to dramatic understanding of a song. Real magic happens when a great sense of swing meets real understanding of lyric. On the evening I saw her, she sung the tune “Violets for my Furs” (a gem of tune, listen to Billie Holiday below) with real pathos and breathtaking specificity of lyric. We all felt the sense and immediacy of the scene she set, and knew where those violets were pinned, and how much they meant to her. Her performance was the perfect meeting of an actor’s specificity, an singer’s attention to sound and lyric, and the taste of an artist that allows the song to shine.

When she performed “Twisted”, her famously lyricized Wardell Gray solo, her easy quirky phrasing was shaped and nuanced differently from her recordings of the song. I reflected on how her interpretation must have evolved over the years since she wrote the words, and how special it is to hear an artist with such a long history with this one song perform it. I think of my own restlessness when I started with this music, and how there were times I thought working on the same standards made me tiresome – I’d quickly move on to performing something new (that I also didn’t fully understand.) I watch Annie perform and am reminded anew that it’s a lifelong relationship we have to this music of ours, and if we’re lucky we’ll be able to share a song we’ve sung for decades with someone who’s hearing it for perhaps the first time.

Her “I’m Glad There is You” was another ballad that used space masterfully. It made me think about timing again. Rhythm is about a lot of things, but in great part it’s about patience. For those of us not born with it (we’re out there,) time teaches it to us. The passage of time eventually will tell you how long things take, how hurry rarely gets you anywhere you’d like to be, or in any state you’d like to be in – in life or in phrasing a song. I’m sure Ms. Ross has always had rhythm, but I think an artist like her is on another level when you add in the lessons of time and age. Just that sense of knowing, and allowing – there’s no faking it.

She closed with “I Got Rhythm,” which was sublime. Done excruciatingly slow with every word and beat savored, this tune alone was a lesson in what time means and how to relish it. I’ve never heard the song done in any way but peppy and fun, and it made me think that the one who’s truly ‘got rhythm’ might be the one who can slow down and still swing. There’s a reason novices like to speed things up – many times it’s because you’re moving to quickly for anyone to realize you don’t know what you’re doing! If you really ‘got’ something, you can take it slow.

When I think of it, the artists who’ve moved me most are octogenarians – Marilyn Maye, John Hendricks, Barbara Cook, Ernestine Anderson, Tony Bennett, Sheila Jordan, and the list goes on. it’s always worth remembering that the elder states people of our (or any) art are indeed treasures. Each of these performers is that at one time or another made me feel as though they had become invisible – their voice and body had become transparent and they had simply become the song. These are the artists to emulate. And how inspiring to know that there’s always going to be more to say and more to sing in every chapter of life, and that there’s no retirement age for evolution. The artists like Ms. Ross inspire me the most by continuing to explore and grow even after they’ve reached an incredible level of ability and understanding. Check her out on Tuesdays – I know I plan to make it a habit.

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