Club Review: Susan Mack’s “Music in the Air”

October 11, 2021 | By

When I am teaching a vocal performance class, I always stress that just because a singer loves to listen to a song doesn’t mean that the singer should sing it.  In the case of Susan Mack’s Music in the Air at Birdland, I would expand that to include if a singer loves a genre of music, it doesn’t mean that the singer should seek to establish themselves in that genre.  

Susan Mack (Photo: Kevin Alvey)

Mack has a warm, inviting voice and a pleasing presence on stage.  I would very much like to see her do a solid “old school” cabaret show where she could allow herself to explore the stories and the melodies of the material without the baggage of attempting jazz arrangements and delivery. For much of the show, it seemed like she was singing in a language not her own.  Her performance was hesitant and squarely out of pocket.  The scat sections seemed forced and put on from the outside; memorized rather than rising from some inner musicality. Her excellent trio—Tedd Firth on piano, David Finck on bass, and Eric Halvorson on drums—was terrific but they were far less adventurous and exciting than they might have been because they were required to play “by the numbers” to support the vocalist. When she said again and again that she loved jazz, I believed her, but she failed to translate that sentiment into performance.  

The opener, “The Song is You” (Jerome Kern, Oscar Hammerstein II), loses a lot of its inherent energy by her awkward and superficial delivery.  Next was a smart medley of the Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm” and “Of Thee I Sing,” but her constant dancing-in-place physicality was too much of a distraction to allow the audience to enjoy the cleverness of the pairing.  After a slowed-down beginning, “I Remember You” (Victor Schertzinger, Johnny Mercer) developed into a medium swing on which Mack’s voice sounded good but the attitude of the lyric fell flat.  “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” (Manning Sherwin, Eric Maschwitz) would seem to be a perfect choice for her, but her phrasing was driven by the music so the story never got a chance to be centerstage. When she sang “(the) feet of Astaire,” she might as well have been singing “a stair.”  On “Desafinado” (Antônio Carlos Jobim, Newton Mendonça; English lyrics by Jon Hendricks, Jessie Cavanaugh), her vocalise seems studied rather than free; she seemed disconnected from the classic bossa rhythms.  

“Spain (I Can Recall)” (Chick Corea, Joaquin Rodrigo, Al Jarreau), “Lullaby of Birdland” (George Shearing, George David Weiss), and “Stomping at the Savoy” (Edgar Sampson, Chick Webb, Benny Goodman, Andy Razaf) would prove daunting to the most seasoned of jazz singers.  Mack seemed so concerned about getting all the words out that she never let the joy of these great songs get to the audience.  Here most of all, but throughout the show, her folksy “aw shucks” patter (complete with too many Phyllis Diller-ish jokes about her husband) was the antithesis of jazz and belonged in another show entirely if anywhere at all.  I was tickled when, at one point, she quoted Plato, and Plato got applause.  That was a cabaret first, at least for me.

“One for My Baby” (Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer) finally clicked in a way no preceding song had.  She did it seated which eliminated the irritating bopping around and she just sang the lyric. The arrangement was the most “cabaret,” and Mack relaxed into that musical setting. The storytelling was strong, albeit the least dark take on the song I have heard.  A nicely considered medley of Cole Porter’s “It’s All Right with Me” and “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” allowed her to be simple and effective against the bouncy background.  She seemed at home away from jazz.  There is much to dig into in Porter’s “Get Out of Town,” but she barely scratched the surface. 

“I Keep Going Back to Joe’s” (Marvin Fisher, Jack Segal) showed just how much the singer could shine when freed from the jazz embellishments.  Her vocals were warm and lovely; with no intricate changes to maneuver and no jazz chops to prove, she soared.  She recounted the heartache of the song simply and movingly.  Here was the singer and the show I wanted and hope one day to see.  Susan Mack should confine jazz to her iPhone and iPad, and instead bring to the stage pop and cabaret.  It was a shame to see her obvious talent obscured under a cloud of jazz aspirations.  


Presented at Birdland Theater, September 19, October 4, and November 8.


Category: News / Reviews / Commentary, Reviews

About the Author ()

Gerry Geddes has conceived and directed a number of musical revues—including the Bistro- and MAC Award-winning "Monday in the Dark with George" and "Put On Your Saturday Suit-Words & Music by Jimmy Webb"—and directed many cabaret artists, including André De Shields, Helen Baldassare, Darius de Haas, and drag artist Julia Van Cartier. He directs "The David Drumgold Variety Show," currently in residence at Manhattan Movement & Arts Center, and has produced a number of recordings, including two Bistro-winning CDs. He’s taught vocal performance at The New School, NYU, and London’s Goldsmith’s College and continues to conduct private workshops and master classes. As a writer and critic, he has covered New York’s performing arts scene for over 40 years in both local and national publications; his lyrics have been sung by several cabaret and recording artists. Gerry is an artist in residence at Pangea, and a regular contributor to the podcast “Troubadours & Raconteurs.” He just completed a memoir of his life in NYC called “Didn’t I Ever Tell You This?”

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