Appreciating Cleo Laine

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For those who have been on Mir forever and don't know her work, Cleo Laine is an English singer who began in modest dance halls in the 1950s and now tours the world with her husband/ bandleader/reed player John Dankworth. Together they produce music of almost astonishing generosity, brilliance and surprise, which ranges from arrangements of the standard songbook to settings of Shakespeare to ardent and vivacious music based on everything from Mozart to W.C. Handy. She masters music from Benjamin Britten to The Merry Widow. She and her husband years ago created a center in rural England near where they live, one of the first havens for the open-minded zest for sound that is now called world music. She has an immense voice with the up-and-down swoop and range of a fighter plane, and a direct and frontal manner that banishes indifference.

In 1983 she was the first British artist to win a Grammy (when that was still a serious award to win, not largely a reward for adroit p.r. and industrial amplification) for the third of her 'live' at Carnegie Hall albums. She was recently pronounced a dame by the English system of royal awards?joining, among others, Joan Sutherland and Judi Dench. However much you may detest such an elitist symbol, in the arts it is in fact largely based on overwhelming merit. Laine has gained it not only for her music but for a career in English and American theater that would itself fulfill an ambitious actor. I count myself fortunate to have met her after the performance of a Saroyan play in London in which a friend was appearing, and then we all had a warm fine gabble in the pub next door until the laws of the land pushed us out onto the drizzly street at 11.

Laine and Dankworth changed jazz and popular music in England along with Ronnie Scott, whose Soho club was the bustling center for lively music before the Liverpudlians and the Stones and many others spread the musical wealth beyond London. It was Laine and Dankworth who unpeeled the strange snobbery that surrounded English artistic life when their versions of Shakespeare and other upscale writers set to music became popular throughout the English system. English music was never the same after their Shakespeare and All That Jazz of l964. Rather crisply, this half-English half-Jamaican diva helped open up the hidebound classbound musical culture of England. Music hall and concert hall met over music. Rather suddenly, there was no conflict between what was fine and what was fun. And then when the music critic of The Times of London wrote a serious (and itself much-criticized) analysis?standards! standards!?of the music of the Beatles, even referring to their use of the Mixolydian mode, the class structure of what you could get in your ears had begun to disappear. And you can argue that Laine and Dankworth started it.

They were in New York at Feinstein's at the Regency for two weeks recently. I was there for the final night and would have been for more had the ticket to ride not been so steep, which Dankworth himself noted from the stage. But the experience of hearing them in an intimate and elegant setting was priceless. It was indescribably perfect. When they performed Dankworth's "Turkish Delight," which involves a tight GoreTex interweave of voice and reed, their joy was plain in their complete mastery of the perilously difficult music and its ambitious exoticism. When Laine launched into a broad blues number with as much authority as in "All the World's a Stage," there was no alternative but to give up to a master. When the fine quartet opened with a vivacious composition by the drummer Jim Zimmerman, it was clear this was to be an eclectic ride. Laine's torchy version of Vincent Youmans' "Tea for Two" turned that English beverage into a slow-acting but potent highball. She moved from the fine song "The Lies of Handsome Men" by the New Yorker Francesca Blumenthal to Jerome Kern's last song, which he never heard. I had thought I should note down the details of the performance when I realized I wanted to write this column about it. But I couldn't bear to break the spell with pen and paper. I couldn't do anything on my own. I was lost to the power of the music.

And to the precision, tact and dignity of the words. No recklessly violent words of explicit antipathy to countless categories of human, from women to men to homosexuals to heterosexuals to whites to blacks to soldiers to cops to Nigerians to Hispanics. It's quite clear that there's a violence if not generation gap between the producers of the love songs that so abundantly fill cabarets and the hate songs that pack arenas. Not that the love songs are only saccharine and dim?they verge from the pitiless archness of Cole Porter to the more demanding assertion of Katie Webster's blues song "No Bread? No Meat."

And the gap is not simply a generation or a degeneration matter?there have always been ghastly songs, and presumably always will be. But there may be an intimacy issue. Could Eminem ever fill the small Feinstein's room? Or is he too small? Is the kind of warmth and detailed scrutiny that marks the cabaret culture unavailable any longer to people who have not been marinated in life's ambiguity? Are they unable to receive let alone produce the acute observations that are the spine of that body of songs that lights up so many dusky saloon evenings?

Wish you had been there, with John and Cleo.

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