Richard Malavet

July 7, 2010 | By | Add a Comment

“The Billy Eckstine Project, Songs in the Key of ‘B'”

Metropolitan Room  –  July 1, 8, 10

Richard Malavet, a New York cabaret singer, certainly did his homework for his latest show, saluting Billy Eckstine. The music of the cool, dapper “Mr. B” is a fine choice for Malavet. He does not try to imitate Eckstine’s memorable basso baritone and full vibrato, but Malavet has a smooth baritone voice of his own and a leaning toward jazz. He selects some memorable tunes from Eckstine’s songbook and gives them his own spin of urbane Manhattan with a hint of the city’s intrinsic pizzazz. I would like to see him let loose a little and evoke more of the familiar New York street energy that nurtured Malavet’s musical talent. Although the crowded stage does not offer much space for swaying, we do get a hint of his Latino rhythm with a sensual rendition of Eckstine’s biggest ballad hit, “Caravan,” by Juan Tizol, Duke Ellington, and Irving Mills.

Eckstine, whose vocals inspired many singers, including Johnny Hartman and Joe Williams, gained renown as a 1940’s leader of the Billy Eckstine Orchestra, with the complex sounds of bebop and starring not only Eckstine, but Dizzy Gillespie as his music director and Sarah Vaughan as band vocalist. Vaughan always praised the influence of Eckstine on her singing, particularly the polished signature vibrato they both shared.

Here Malavet focuses on Eckstine’s singing career. Eckstine turned to full-time singing after his orchestra disbanded toward the end of the ’40’s. He was the first African-American accepted as a balladeer, and since his popularity lay with lush mellow romantic music, Malavet delivers songs like “I Apologize” by Al Hoffman, Al Goodhart and Ed Nelson. Although Eckstine was influenced by the band instrumentalists he played with, his singing came from the technique of Herb Jeffries, another African-American balladeer, and also Bing Crosby and Russ Columbo. Several Eckstine renditions fared better than the originals, for example, Columbo’s “Prisoner of Love,” a song he co-wrote with Leo Robin and Clarence Gaskill. Malavet’s interpretation illustrates Eckstine’s sensuality, which was lacking in Columbo’s original recording.

It’s easy to discern the passion and respect Malavet invests in his ballads. His outstanding interpretation of “A Cottage for Sale” (Larry Conley, Willard Robison) shows sincerity and poignant devotion to the song’s intent. He includes the tags Billy Eckstine often added at the end of some recordings. Duke Ellington and Bob Russell’s “Do Nothin’ Till You Hear from Me” builds with steady drama. Unfortunately, while his tone is delectably plush, Malavet’s pitch is unreliable, noticeably in “You’re My Everything” (Mort Dixon, Joe Young, Harry Warren), which opens the show.

Malavet is delightful in the up-tempo jazz tunes, like Eckstine and Gerald Valentine’s “(I Love the) Rhythm in a Riff” and, especially, “Jelly, Jelly” (Eckstine and Earl Hines), Eckstine’s first hit before he was accepted as a romantic singer. Here we see hints of Malavet’s jazz energy waiting to break through with some strong rhythmic tunes.

Malavet shows a modest charm, but a serious downside of this show is his patter, which does not seem to come to him easily. He’s collected a lot of interesting bio on Billy Eckstine and he presents it early, but he never seems prepared with his information. Throughout the opening performance, he fumbled through pages of written notes and was often distracted. A suggestion: let the patter go if it does not come naturally, and allow the songs to tell the story. This is his comfort zone. Hopefully, further performances of this show will smooth out the flow.

Kudos to the sensitive and imaginative arrangements of musical director/pianist John di Martino and to the fine Norman Simmons Orchestra.


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