By Stanford Friedman
Spend enough time at Birdland, and there are a few folks you are likely to start recognizing. There’s the visionary owner of the club, Gianni Valenti. There’s a bartender who, though not a Beach Boy, is a singer named Brian Wilson. And then there is Billy Stritch, who for the past couple of decades could be found accompanying vocalists like Marilyn Maye and Christine Ebersole, or just plain showing off his remarkable ear and musical knowledge as the pianist for the open mic performers of Jim Caruso’s Cast Party. Now, backed by Tom Hubbard on bass and Mark McLean on drums, Stritch is headlining a weekend gig for the first time, with five performances through August 7. The 90-minute show is a soothing and captivating outing for those looking to groove their way back to live performances.
Stritch plays the piano so effortlessly that it is hard to believe the intricate melodies emanating from the stage are originating from his fingertips, even as you are looking right at him. This is not to say that he performs on automatic. Rather, it suggests that he is in possession of a seriously impressive skillset which allows his subconscious to tickle the ivories while he is otherwise focused on his vocals. A self-proclaimed fan of Mel Tormé, the influence is obvious in the crooning, bopping and scat singing that make up this 15 number set. Stritch’s voice is perhaps a touch smoother and a tad deeper than Tormé’s. If not a velvet fog, then a silky smoke.
The evening is not built to be a thematic whole. Instead, Stritch and company group together songs that play well together or else contrast in intriguing ways. And, as might be expected from an accompanist who is now in the spotlight, there is a strong focus on lesser known tunes that deserve their own time to shine. They begin with two upbeat numbers that celebrate the romantic possibilities of staying up late: a bouncy Barry Manilow deep cut called “Meet Me, Midnight” (“Poor Cinderella, she had it wrong.”) and “No Moon At All,” by Redd Evans and Dave Mann, featuring a joyful bout of scatting. Then it’s a quick pivot to two plaintive melodies from Rodgers & Hart, “Glad to be Unhappy” (“Unrequited love’s a bore/And I’ve got it pretty bad/But for someone you adore/It’s a pleasure to be sad”) and “Falling in Love with Love.”
The playful song, “Billy’s Place” is a ditty Stritch wrote as the theme to his online concert series that was birthed at the start of the pandemic and which continues to be performed weekly from his apartment. There’s a newish album as well, bearing the same name, thus the tune makes it into the evening’s song list, on the heels of the Mercer and Carmichael classic, “Skylark.”
Having blocked out most of the 1970’s, I had forgotten that Carole Bayer Sager and Peter Allen were once collaborators – and that they wrote the megahit, “Don’t Cry Out Loud.” We are spared that old chestnut in favor of “Planes,” a simply rhymed piece from 1976 with chords and lyrics that brought to mind Sager’s Broadway work from that era, They’re Playing Our Song.
Other joyful moments in the back half of the night includes the wonderfully silly “The Coffee Song” by Hilliard & Miles (“You date a man and find out later/He smells like a percolator”) and an instructive medley of four songs from four different lyricists, but all with the music of Jimmy McHugh. McLean adds an excellent drum solo here, emphasizing the magic of the drum brush.
“Ordinary Miracles” (Marvin Hamlisch/Alan & Marilyn Bergman) closes out the evening on a hopeful note, one that strikes home for performers grateful to be back on stage and their equally grateful audience, “Just by giving and receiving/Comes belonging and believing.”
The Billy Stritch Trio (Billy Stritch, piano and vocals, Tom Hubbard on bass and Mark McLean on drums) at Birdland, 315 W 44th St.,(212) 581-3080, www.birdlandjazz.com. Thursday, August 5 at 7:00 PM; Friday, August 6 at 7:00 PM and 9:30 PM; and Saturday, August 7 at 7:00 PM and 9:30 PM. The cover charge is $30. Running time: 90 minutes.