Sylvia Syms - vocals; Michael Abene - piano; Randy Brecker - trumpet; Jay Leonhart - bass; Panama Francis - drums
An exceptional cabaret singer with a bold delivery and a sophisticated, sinuous sense of phrasing that echoed her idol Billie Holiday, Sylvia Syms always surrounded herself with top-flight jazz musicians. And whether she was performing at the Oak Room of the Algonquin Hotel or at Carnegie Hall, as she did for this July 4th performance at the 1975 Newport Jazz Festival, Syms never failed to deliver familiar jazz standards with her own distinctive touch of class. She is accompanied here by pianist Michael Abene, who today is an acclaimed composer-arranger and musical director of the WDR Big Band of Cologne, Germany, along with the seasoned rhythm tandem of bassist Jay Leonhart and drummer Panama Francis and the young trumpet sensation Randy Brecker.
Syms kicks off her Carnegie set with the Harold Arlen-Johnny Mercer tune "This Will Be My Shining Hour," which begins with an intimate piano-voice duet before Abene signals the band with a brief but eminently hip quote from Thelonious Monk's "Friday the 13th." Leisurely swinging ensues, with Syms' deep, grainy contralto leading the way. Abene repeats that Monk refrain throughout the piece while Brecker shadows Syms with playful call-and-response moves on trumpet. Syms pays tribute to Duke Ellington, who had passed away the year before on May 24, 1974, with a poignant reading of his melancholy ballad "I Didn't Know About You," which features some tasty muted trumpet playing by Brecker. Syms brings major sass on a swaggering rendition of Harold Arlen's 1934 chestnut "As Long As I Live," then interprets the Tin Pan Alley torch song with dramatic flair, with Brecker again echoing her plaintive phrasing on muted trumpet and Francis underscoring the proceedings with gentle brushwork. Their mid-tempo swinging rendition of Cole Porter's "Night and Day" is perhaps the closest that Syms comes to channeling the spirit of Billie Holiday. She continues with a jaunty medley of well known Fats Waller tunes, including "Keepin' Out of Mischief Now," "Ain't Misbehavin'," and closes her set with a playfully seductive rendition of Waller's "Honeysuckle Rose" that opens with a bass-voice duet before the full band joins in for the bluesy refrain.
Born Sylvia Blagman on Dec. 2, 1917, in Flatbush, Brooklyn, Syms began hanging around the jazz clubs of West 52d Street in Manhattan at age 15 and inaugurated her nightclub career at Kelly's Stable in 1941. Five years later, she made her first recording, I'm in the Mood for Love, with the Freddie Greene Band. She recorded for the Atlantic, Decca, and Columbia labels through the '50s, '60s, and '70s and in 1982 recorded Syms by Sinatra, which was conducted by Sinatra himself. Her final recording was You Must Believe in Spring, released shortly before she passed away on May 10, 1992. (Milkowski)