At Birdland and on Broadway, Julie Benko Establishes Herself

The perfect Fannie Brice for our time, she may have a secret weapon: the collaboration with her husband, the jazz pianist and composer Jason Yeager.

Sub Urban Photography
Julie Benko. Sub Urban Photography

Julie Benko & Jason Yeager
‘Hand In Hand’ (Club44 Records)

Allow me to confess to having been predisposed toward liking Julie Benko even before I received her new album and attended her “solo” show at Birdland last week. There was good reason: I had just caught a Sunday matinee of “Funny Girl,” and with the remarkable Ms. Benko squeezed between Jared Grimes, Jane Lynch, and the outstanding baritone Jeremiah James (so like a young Robert Goulet, with a shot of Paolo Szot), I found it to be the revelatory revival of the season. Ms. Benko emerged as the perfect Fannie Brice for our time.  

Then again, Ms. Benko may have had a secret weapon: the collaboration with her husband, the jazz pianist and composer Jason Yeager. The two spent most of the pandemic perfecting their voice-and-piano duo over a long-running virtual series they wittily titled “Quarentunes.” The best of that material has now found its way onto the newly released album “Hand in Hand.”

The score to “Funny Girl” consists largely of 1920s-style tunes written specifically for that show by Jule Styne, who understood the music of the jazz age better than most because he got his start in the snappy, peppy dance bands of red hot Chicago. Many contemporary Broadway singers are extremely versatile, but the majority simply fall down when they try to sing anything with a swinging jazz beat. The gap between “a show tune in 2/4,” a la Jerry Herman, and the 4/4 pulse of most jazz is usually a bridge too far.

Ms. Benko started the Birdland set with “Me, Myself and I,” which instantly established her bona fides. This 1937 number by Irving Gordon — who more famously wrote “Prelude to a Kiss” with Duke Ellington and “Unforgettable” for Nat King Cole — is associated with Billie Holiday and Benny Goodman, who only played it live on radio. It’s a gentle, subtle swinger, but it illustrates how being able to land on the right part of the beat is no less important here than in a high-octane super swinger like Anita O’Day doing “Tea For Two.”  

Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Anita O’Day are unreasonably high-level role models for singing jazz; Broadway singers interested in the form should perhaps instead listen to the likes of Maxine Sullivan, Mildred Bailey, and Helen Humes, who each sang with a gentle but compelling swing; always communicated the inner meaning of the lyric; and were amazing storytellers. In her treatment of vintage Tin Pan Alley-type numbers here, Ms. Benko reminds us of Bailey more than anybody.

There are other kinds of songs on the album: singer-songwriter numbers such as “All I’ve Ever Known,” by Anais Mitchell; show tunes both classic (“It Might As Be Spring” and “If I Were a Bell”) and contemporary (Jason Robert Brown’s “Another Life”); and songs that split the difference, like “Gainesville” from Randy Newman’s “Faust.” 

The Birdland show featured multi-reed player Patrick Laslie, bassist Michael O’Brien, and drummer Jay Sawyer, but on the album the two create all the sounds themselves. They use modern technology — an electric keyboard adjusted to sound like an old-fashioned celeste — to enhance the background for two particularly nostalgic vintage songs about the Pelican State, “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?” and “Louisiana Fairy Tale.” 

The latter also features Ms. Benko playing clarinet obligatos behind her own vocal via overdubs. At Birdland, she enhanced it with a “washboard tie,” which is an instrument of both music and fashion, not to mention laundry.

Mr. Yeager has also contributed two originals, including the song he wrote for their wedding, “Just Begun,” a touching, waltzy story-song that put me in mind of “Dear Friend” (from “She Loves Me”). “Sweet Pea” is a dedication to jazz composer Billy Strayhorn — and, by extension, Duke Ellington — and is grown from the same garden as their signature vegetation-inspired works, like “Passion Flower” and “Lotus Blossom.”

The Yeagers ended the show with Janis Joplin’s upbeat, rabble-rousing, audience participation number “Mercedes Benz,” followed by a beautifully intimate encore, just voice and piano, on “The Nearness of You.”

“People” may be the focal point of the project, being an extremely personal, jazz-influenced interpretation of a classic song that Ms. Benko is privileged to sing eight times a week in “Funny Girl.” The two of them happily are too young to be aware that the song became an overdone cliche in the wake of the Streisand explosion. Ironically, “People” became the province of larger-than-life divas, all of whom sounded like the last thing in the world they needed was other people, except perhaps as worshippers. 

Ms. Benko and Mr. Yeager slow it down to make us listen to it like we’re hearing Styne’s beautiful melody and Bob Merrill’s touching words for the first time, and they make us realize what an incredible song it actually is. Ms. Benko sings it like she truly is a person who needs people — or “one very special person,” at the very least.

The New York Sun

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