It’s just possible that Ruth Leon set the bar too high on the first of four nightly celebrations to mark the 10th anniversary of the relaunching of The Pheasantry. However, the audience on the second night appeared to enjoy the performers so much so that they were actually singing along with the final act.
Superficially there’s an element of the novelty, a whiff of the carnival about this Harry The Piano’s act but to dismiss it as such is to overlook a very considerable talent. Years ago Victor Borge, another highly gifted pianist/comedian, in conversation with an audience, was asked “Is there anything you can’t do with a piano?” He replied succinctly, “Yes, I can’t lift it”. Harry The Piano is certainly equipped to echo that sentiment; he begins with what he describes as an “improvised medley” in which he plays literally anything that pops into his head from – theoretically – The Teddy Bear’s Picnic through Respighi’s Fountains Of Rome via Yes, We Have No Bananas and whilst there will always be cynics like myself who see no reason why this segment could not have been devised beforehand and polished to a fare-thee-well over weeks/months it does look impressive.
Harry follows with a Gershwin medley and then, as a pièce de resistance, asks the audience to suggest titles, styles plus meldings – this night, for example, someone requested James Bond in ragtime and Over The Rainbow as Mozart might have written it. It’s perhaps just as well that I didn’t participate because when I spoke to him at the end of the evening I found he was unable to identify slightly less well-known titles by well-known composers. Nevertheless this was a perfect act to kick things off.
Etta James has a lot to answer for and it’s not surprising that in biographical notes Emma Hatton names James as a big influence. This is a roundabout way of saying that Hatton has a fine voice tailor-made for bringing out the tenderness in a ballad but, influenced by James, insists on treating ballads as “soul” numbers and one could argue she’d be better served listening to Ricky Hatton. The bulk of her repertoire is balladic rather than beat – Almost Like Being In Love, Let There Be Love, L-O-V-E, I’ll Be Seeing You, Love Is Here To Stay, You Go To My Head.
This last title was given a somewhat bizarre reading: composer J. Fred Coots wrote the melody in the standard AABA format and lyricist Haven Gillespie weighed in with some tasty triple rhymes but Hatton chose to completely ignore the first A section and start with the second A which meant she had to ignore the B section also and use the third A section as the second A and then go into the B. A quick glance at the lyric should make this clearer; Gillespie’s first A section reads:
You go to my head
And you linger like a haunting refrain
And I find you spinning round in my brain
Like the bubbles in a glass of champagne.
As stated Hatton omitted this completely and started with the second A section, to whit:
You go to my head
Like a sip of sparkling burgundy brew
And I find the very mention of you
Like the kicker in a julep or two.
In Hatton’s defence the song was written in 1934 and she is only in her mid-30s but given she has elected to make a living singing standards she should really put the hours in rehearsing the words the lyricist wrote. If – and this applies to other girl singers as well – she would learn to trust the song and her own fine voice she could be a major asset to the jazz/cabaret scene.
It is traditional to leave the best for last but given my taste, developed and refined over a lifetime, and Liane Carroll’s repertoire of choice the opposite obtains. Before proceeding I feel duty bound to point out that all 12 performers who have been invited to entertain at this four-day celebration have proved themselves time and time again at dozens of venues. Let’s face it, I’m hard to please.
Carroll’s opening number, Ray Charles’s hit You Don’t Know Me, told us all we needed to know about this artist making later reference to Bessie Smith superfluous. She followed with a reading of Cy Coleman’s Witchcraft that was virtually unrecognisable albeit she was on firmer ground with St Louis Blues and she managed to segue seamlessly from Summertime to My Favourite Things. She also scored heavily with Summertime and You Got A Friend, so much so that the audience were happy to accompany her and end the evening as a Singalong With Mitch. We’re still only halfway through the celebrations and with acts of the calibre of Kit & The Widow (albeit under their new byline) and Elaine Delmar lined up it should be a treat indeed.
The Pheasantry, The First Decade, Day Two. The Pheasantry, Kings Road, London SW3 4UT. 12 November 2019.