Cleo Laine - vocals; John Dankworth - alto saxophone, clarinet, piano; Frank Wess - tenor sax; Cecil Payne - baritone sax; Jimmy Nottingham - trumpet; Red Rodney - trumpet; Joe Gardner - trumpet; Danny Styles - trumpet; Sonny Russo - trombone; Dick Griffin - trombone; Paul Hart - piano, violin; Brian Torff - bass; Kenny Clare - drums
A world-class jazz singer with a husky contralto voice, dark velvet delivery and a penchant for virtuosic scatting, England's Cleo Laine has been compared to such all-time greats as Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Carmen McRae. A household name on the British jazz scene since the 1960s, she made her Stateside debut in 1972 and the following year made a gala appearance at Carnegie Hall, which was documented on an acclaimed live album. In 1975, Laine appeared at the New York edition of the Newport Jazz Festival in concert at Avery Fisher Hall with an ensemble led by her husband, saxophonst-clarinetist John Dankworth.
They open their Friday evening set with a haunting rendition of the bluesy Harold Arlen-Johnny Mercer number "Anywhere I Hang My Hat Is Home," which opens with Laine's rich voice melding with Dankworth's sinuous clarinet lines before the ensemble joins in. The piece gradually develops from a seductive whisper to all-out belting, with Laine hitting the stratosphere on her final high register note. She flaunts her acrobatic four-octave range on the upbeat Lane & Lerner show tune "Come Back To Me" (from the 1965 Broadway musical On A Clear Day You Can See Forever). Her natural ease with a blues tune is showcased on a version of Johnny Mercer's devilishly clever "Talk To Me Baby," which begins as a voice-bass duet with Brian Torff before the full band enters. Dankworth also delivers a potent alto sax solo on this midtempo swinger.
Paul Williams' dramatic ballad "Let Me Be The One" is a prime example of Laine's emotive qualities in full effect. Her theatrical streak then comes out on a series of poems set to Dankworth's inventive original music, beginning with e. e. cummings' "Viva Sweet Love," followed by Spike Milligan's humorous "Teeth," Shakepeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and Percy French's "A Musician's Plea to His Tone Deaf Love." She next delivers Randy Newman's ballad "I Think It's Going To Rain Today" with uncommon dramatic flair. Dankworth's "Birdsong (Sambalaya)" is a sprightly vehicle that showcases Laine's peerless scatting chops while "It's the Bluest Kind of Blues"(essentially lyrics set to Django Reinhardt's "Nuages") is another example of her emotive powers as a torch singer. Pianist Paul Hart switches to violin on this melancholy gypsy jazz number while Dankworth slides into the piano chair. Laine again delivers a real-deal blues in convincing fashion alongside the humorous call-and-response trumpet work of Jimmy Nothingham on a rendition of "Unlucky Woman (Born on a Friday)," a tune written by the eminent British-born jazz critic Leonard Feather and long associated with singer Helen Humes. Dankworth adds some deep blue sentiments of his own with an earthy clarinet solo here.
Cleo and company close their July 3rd set with a medley of her most-requested tunes, including a jaunty swing through "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter," a heartfelt rendition of the ballad "I Want to Make it With You" by the group Bread, the buoyant show tune "Knick-a-Knack-a-Knock," a version of the earthy Bessie Smith anthem "Give Me a Pigfoot and a Bottle of Beer," along with renditions of Lerner & Lowe's "On a Clear Day," "Day By Day" from Jesus Christ Superstar and "I've Got Music All Around Me." Laine returns for an encore, swinging and scatting her way through a spirited rendition of Duke Ellington's "Perdido" then offers as a finale a relaxed and soulful rendition of "Please Don't Talk About Me When I'm Gone," the Tin Pan Alley tune long associated with the great Billie Holiday.
For those not yet acquainted with England's First Lady of Song, this 1975 Newport Jazz Festival set will serve as a proper introduction to the great Cleo Laine. She was born on October 28, 1927 as Clementina Dinah Campbell in Southall, Middlesex, to a Jamaican father and English mother. Laine began singing and dancing lessons at an early age but didn't start singing professionally until her mid-twenties. She later landed a job in Dankworth's band and in 1957 released her solo debut, Meet Cleo Laine. The following year, she and Dankworth were married. In 1964, they collaborated on Shakespeare and All That Jazz, which received widespread critical acclaim. Through the 1960s, Laine starred in a number of successful musical theater productions, culminating in her show-stopping appearance in a 1971 production of Show Boat at the Adelphi Theatre in London. Her career as jazz singer took off in the 1970s following successful tours of Europe, Australia and the United States.
In 1979, Laine was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for services to music. She continued to pursue both musical theater and jazz through the '80s, earning a Tony nomination in 1985 for the role of Princess Puffer in the Broadway hit musical The Mystery of Edwin Drood and winning a Grammy Award for Best Female Jazz Vocalist in 1983 for her live album, Cleo at Carnegie: The 10th Anniversary Concert. She subsequently recorded duet albums with Mel Tormé (1992's Nothing Without You) and Ray Charles (1976's Porgy and Bess), and also collaborated with such jazz stars as baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, trumpeters Clark Terry and Kenny Wheeler, pianist George Shearing and harmonica ace Toots Thielemans. She areturned to Carnegie Hall in 1998 to mark 25 years since her hit record Cleo - Live At Carnegie. That performance was recorded and released as Cleo Laine - Live In Manhattan.
In 1997, she was appointed Dame Cleo Laine DBE (the equivalent of a knighthood for women). She marked her 80th birthday on October 28, 2007 with a series of special concerts in the United Kingdom, including an appearance with the John Dankworth sextet at Birmingham Town Hall on December 18, 2007. A year later, in September, 2008, the couple appeared together for a week-long engagement at the Blue Note in New York City. He husband died on February 6, 2010, hours before a planned concert at The Stables Theatre in Wavendon to celebrate the venue's 40th anniversary. Their last recording together, Jazz Matters, was released later in 2010. Laine, who is still in remarkably fine voice at age 82, continues to perform internationally with a memorial edition of the John Dankworth Big Band and also with a small group.
-Written by Bill Milkowski