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Jack Phillips At Don't Tell Mama's, Friday, July 5th, 2013, Reviewed

Jack Phillips doesn’t compromise
















If you missed Jack Phillips at Don’t Tell Mama on May 28th, it was exciting news that Phillips was giving you a second chance. But what was he really? I mean, really really? The May 28th concert by the American Standard bearer stepping into the vacuum left by the passing of Bobby Short was a well advertised, well rehearsed  and well attended coming out party for his neo-classic swing album Cafe Nights In New York.

Friday’s show was nothing of the sort. Phillips made a conscious decision to tell nobody about the concert and it was subsequently sparsely attended. Indeed Phillips warned me to take it as a dress rehearsal where he worked out the kinks in the setlist and gave the band the opportunity to spread their wings a little.

In which case it was a complete success. “Mona Lisa And Mad Hatters” and “New York State Of Mind” are gone replaced by two originals, one of which is a perfect fit for the penultimate song of the evening. The singing is wobblier than it was in May but when Jack got a grip on a song, he got a lot more of it. “Take Them To Manhattan”, “The Old Gray Hat”, ” and “Magic” are all originals and all sung with gusto and passion that, if anything, cuts the recorded version. A re-arranged “Sidewalks Of New York” is a swinging, smart take on the song and “Manhattan”…

Actually, this is a problem with the set. The first four songs of the evening, two originals and two covers begining with “Manhattan”, are so strong the set has nowhere to go but down. The fifth song of the night, A Kern-Hammerstein obscurity, is a difficult if lovely number but not in the right place.

Phillips recovers fast with another original “I’ve Got Sophistication” soon. Six of the 13 songs are originals and they are six of the eight best songs of the performance. You can tell the audience laps them up; Jack gives so much of himself to “The Old Gray Hat” even people who don’t know it treat it like a Great American Standard.

Jack sells his song well, his movements are small but graceful, he handles mishaps with ease, has a real presence on stage that commands your attention and is a sharing lead singer, giving up the spotlight to the band.  His band sound better tonight than last May,  though that could well be just the difference between hearing a recording of the set and seeing it in person. Drummer Klaus Suonsaari is a very subtle player, keeping everything rolling along.  Conal Fowkes almost steals the show with one piano solo after another, a jaunty airy, melodic piano carrying the tune forward.

And every single original song is at least as good as the recorded version plus “Magic” which never made an impression on me, does now. This is Phillips setting up a performance that will last him for years on the cabaret circuit. We don’t get “Someone” because we don’t have a trumpet player, but we can imagine what we will get with time, what will happen to the set as Phillips gets it righter and righter. So this is a dress rehearsal yes, but a good one.

Grade: B+

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