Friday, February 14th, 2003


An agile voice, and always swinging

Robert Cushman
National Post


Top of the Senator, Toronto

George Evans, Toronto jazz singer, is dapper, wears glasses, has a hint of a beard, and moves around a lot. He has altogether the air of a white Sammy Davis Jr., and especially of the early '60s Sammy who was much influenced by Mel Tormé and sang his way convincingly through intricately cool arrangements of some very good tunes.

Evans, who takes the stand in a bright red jacket such as I have never before seen on a singer of his persuasion, exudes the same kind of hip flamboyance as Davis; he even cocks his head and closes his eyes in the same manner to denote deep emotion. His voice, which is very agile, also summons other black singers with more traditionally respectable credentials; his low notes sometimes recall the echoing, roomy sound of Billy Eckstine, and when he gets impish he can go strangely cockney in the manner of Al Hibbler, who used to fill the role of clown-prince in the Duke Ellington band.

Unlike those true or false balladeers, though, he hardly ever sings slow. Whatever the explicit message of a lyric, Evans, at least in this engagement, which includes inter alia all 12 songs from his latest CD, always swings it.

This does have its pleasures, but the differences between songs get flattened out. I Only Have Eyes for You, a rapturous song, and Darn That Dream, a rueful song, exist here side by side in a kind of shoulder-shrugging no man's land.

To judge from his first two CDs, which came out some half-dozen years ago, Evans used to be a different kind of singer, less confident but more confiding, and more attentive to the contours of a lyric. But as his technique has grown (on Wednesday night he claimed to have launched a couple of songs in the wrong key, but it was hardly noticeable) so, apparently, has his sense of what is proper to a jazz singer. It seems to entail a lot of vocal shakes, applied just for the fun of it, some melismatic slurs, and some odd verbal stresses; a luxury-lounge account of The Very Thought of You included the line, "I'm living in a kind of daydream," as if the key word were the conjunction. Frank Sinatra would not have approved.

One hazard of this quasi-instrumental approach, for all but the most inventive singers, is that the actual instrumentalists surrounding him are likely to do it better than he does. Evans is performing with an excellent and sympathetic quartet -- pianist Mark Eisenman, saxophonist Kelly Jefferson, the monarch of Toronto drummers Archie Alleyne, and (especially good) bassist Keiran Overs -- and there was a great and humorous rapport between the five of them. But in some of their solos the musicians seemed to be playing not only the music but the words, rather more expressively than the singer was singing them.

But there are no rules. I'm a Fool to Want You, which Sinatra (its co-author) used to sing virtually out of tempo, came up refreshed with a beat, and also with its melodrama somewhat defused, which was helpful. Where Have You Been is a lesser-known Cole Porter tune that its composer seems to have thought of as stately and sweeping. Its lyric, though, like most of Porter's songs, and has a subversive jauntiness that starts with a slangy title. Evans' unceremonious approach matched it very nicely; two different brands of insouciance met and agreed.

The second set, which started with a straightforwardly propulsive This Can't Be Love was, as often happens, better than the first. It's not so much that Evans grew more assured as that we did; we started hearing the material through his ears.

Some of the lesser songs came out best. Make Me Rainbows and I'm Gonna Live Till I Die are rather generic numbers (that, in the case of the latter, is being kind) and Evans' unstressed approach made them work as abstract essays in cheerfulness. And if you want to hear Alfie (personally I don't, but the club's lovely manageress had requested it), then Evans sings it as well as anybody is likely to. He makes it, in its own preposterously solemn words, something even non-believers can believe in.

Until Sunday. 416-364-7517.

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