By Sarah Downs
Karen Mason brought her own special brand of magic to Birdland on Monday night. In “30 … and Counting” Mason revisited some of her most cherished collaborations with accompanist and Musical Director Christopher Denny, in celebration of their 30 years working together.
Denny and Mason are like two halves of one being. In his playing, Denny’s mastery of both driving and echoing Mason’s performance is so subtle that it can take us a moment to comprehend his sleight of hand. His work leaves Mason free to sing without restraint, to explore, to expand, to fill the stage and shed light beyond it. For her part, elegant in flowing pantsuit and blouson top, glamorous in its simplicity, Mason is a walking Halston who just happens to channel music straight from the Muse.
She brought authentic joy and sparkle as she stepped onstage, singing an uptempo version of “Zing, Went the Strings of My Heart.” Moving on to “Lorna’s Here/I Want to Be with You” from Golden Boy (Strouse/Adams) with its tone of longing, she moved easily into her clear upper register. Similarly, in the wistful “I Made a New Friend” by Brian Lasser and the deeply romantic Rolnick/Snyder tune “Talkin to the Moon,” she eased into her sound. This is her sweet spot — the unhurried meditation on lyric and its relationship to melodic line.
Director Barry Kleinbort kept the pace going, weaving themes of time and distance throughout in subtly curated choices of repertoire. He balanced ballad with humor, in uptunes like a carefree “Taking a Chance on Love” (Vernon Duke). Mason’s patter was casual and funny, connecting easily in reminiscence. Mason has lived this music, and she easily explores the nooks and crannies of each song. Every performance presents a new opportunity to discover, but few performers exploit the opportunity to the extent Mason does.
She treated us to a beautiful song from the Frank Wildhorn show Wonderland, in which, appropriately, she played the Queen of Hearts. Mason’s performance is all about heart. In the medley from The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Legrand/Gimbel) she wrung every drop of grief and longing out of the lyric without ever overstepping.
The inspired “On Broadway/Broadway Baby” arrangement was a standout. Anyone who’s ever been in theater will feel this one. The ‘so-close-and-yet-so-far”-ness is palpable. Morphing into “Broadway Baby” without switching out of the accompaniment to “On Broadway,” with it’s insistent rhythm, was a stroke of genius. It is not a medley as much as a marriage, and Mason nails it.
Hewing to the thematic arc of time, Mason sang Bachrach’s “A House is Not a Home”, imbuing it with a monologue quality that gave Bachrach’s unconstrained songwriting style its due. How à propos to move on to the poignant “Time” (Thalken/Kleinbort), with its echoes and silence.
As time moves on and dreams pass, the only hope we have is to reach out. Mason does so in the Beatles tune “Help,” giving it a unique dimension with clear emotional choices. She stayed in that space even as the music changed to Sondheim’s “Being Alive.” The two ideas became one as Mason gathered intensity, breathing the lyric, devouring it, moving ever outward, in a performance that brought down the house.
And for the final note of the evening, the delicate encore, Gershwin’s “Our Love is Here to Stay.” A love song to Denny — collaborator, performer, partner in crime. It was the calm after the storm, and of course, we’re all in tears. Love, longing, joy and tears. What more could one ask for?
“30 … and Counting”, Karen Mason sings at Birdland Jazz Club, 315 West 44th St., New York City.
August 8, 2022.