A key takeaway from the Hollywood Bowl’s star-studded, foundationally jazzy but stylistically eclectic Tribute to Peggy Lee and Frank Sinatra must be shared even before we discuss the sweep of music history, the decades long mutual admiration society between the two and the one classic album that brought their talents together in a unique way some 65 years ago.
Pop icon Billie Eilish, whose sly, playful and sensuous duet with upright bassist, host and event Musical Director on Lee’s iconic “Fever” was the intimately intoxicating highlight of the busy night, needs to do a standards album stat. Saved for the next to last numberof the night, it was as if the previous two hours, with all their highs (The Count Basie Orchestra, pianist John Beasley, Carmen Bradford, Dianne Reeves, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Seth MacFarlane) and lows were mere prelude to Eilish’s intuitive, transcendent old soul approach to the legendary singer’s iconic trademark.
Following that otherworldly magic with a dreamy spoken and sung duet with the equally sultry and emotionally inviting Debbie Harry on Lee’s other best known song “Is That All There Is?” was the perfect way to wrap the mostly compelling, often fascinating yet slightly uneven show on a high note. In her heyday, Harry was every bit the innovative pop icon that Eilish is now, so beyond simply their artful vocal deliveries, the tune had a whimsical, passing the torch vibe to it – as if Lee’s song was the conduit bridging generations. One insightful person I encountered also pointed out that having Eilish sing the song was a way for older fans (and maybe even those who were listening when it was on the charts in 1969) to understand that young adults of Eilish’s generation feel disappointed about a lot of things in life, too.
As for history, and as a means to explain why the pairing of tributes makes perfect thematic sense, Sinatra and Lee – both of whom started out as big band singers - played their first concerts at the Bowl almost exactly ten years apart, him in August 1943, her in September 1953. Their close friendship began when they both played the Paramount Theatre in New York in 1941, and their respective meteoric careers came together in 1957, when Lee resigned with Capitol Records (after five years on Decca) and the two collaborated on The Man I Love, with her singing, him conducting and Nelson Riddle doing the arrangements.
After showing a glimpse of their easy rapport via a black and white video clip on the large screens, the Sinatra half of the night began with the Count Basie Orchestra gently swinging through “Jealous Lover,” followed by one of the orchestra’s esteemed alumni, jazz singer Carmen Bradford” inviting us into the deep, sweet emotions of “The Shadow of Your Smile.” Then, after a Latin tinged orchestral romp through “South of the Border,” there were a lot of interesting stylistic shifts and comings and goings. For all artists, one of the challenges in paying homage to Sinatra is – do you do you do Frank like Frank or swing the classics in your own style?
Considering the way the incomparable five time Grammy winning jazz stylist Dianne Reeves put her own inventive dramatic stamps on her two solo numbers (“Stella By Starlight, “One For My Baby”) and the wild, scat filled romp with McBride on “September in the Rain,” Seth Macfarlane’s very straightforward, low key hipster croon on “I Thought About You” and “In The Wee Small Hours of the Morning” offered some nice, low stress balance.
The other featured singers offered some intense mood swings, with Gretchen Parlato’s sweetly sensual but overly relaxed takes on two Sinatra-Jobim bossa nova collaborations followed by Broadway legend Brian Stokes Mitchell putting vocal force and his powerful storytelling talents and renowned baritone to work on “Luck Be A Lady” and “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.” The Sinatra set closed on a lovely nostalgic note, with a short video clip of Frank and Peggy singing The Gershwins’ “Nice Work If You Can Get It” leading into a cool, conversational duet between Mitchell and Reeves that emphasized tenderness over sheer power.
Prior to the Eilish and “Fever,” the Peggy Lee set was mostly hit, a little miss, starting out super strong with a lighthearted band version of “I Don’t Know Enough About You” (with an exquisite piano melody by John Beasley) and Bradford emphatically reminding us that “It’s A Good Day” before things got a little scattershot.
Each of the performers – blues legend Bettye LaVette, Reeves and Harry – did admirably on their chosen pieces, but the comings and goings were unusual, with two LaVette songs (“Black Coffee,” “Love Me Or Leave Me”) followed by two Harry tunes (“Why Don’t You Do Right,” “I Get Ideas”) followed by Reeves’ “Blue Prelude,” followed by two more by LaVette (including the playful, ultra-cheeky “He’s a Tramp”) and then another by Harry (“Let’s Love”).
The overall pre-Eilish performance would have been more effective had LaVette and Harry done longer sets, punctuated by the Reeves number. All the walk-ons and walk-offs were time consuming and broke the momentum.
All was redeemed when Ms. Eilish, dressed in an ensemble featuring a stylish black tuxedo jacket, took the stage and held court, showing the veterans who preceded her how delicate subtlety, brilliant phrasing and spot on soul can work a crowd into a frenzy.