A month ago an LA based Jazz Journalist friend emailed me to say that Molly Ringwald was coming to Auckland. I learned that she would be singing a selection of Jazz Standards from the ‘Great American Songbook’. He suggested that I should hook up with her arranger and pianist Peter Smith and we duly made contact. After that I watched for the promotional material to hit the papers and I was not surprised to see that there was a heavy focus on Molly’s former life as an actress. It is almost a reflex action for the print media to pose the question; yes she is a Hollywood celebrity and we loved her in this and that role,but can she sing? I determined from that point on that I would focus solely on the music and leave the Hollywood trivia to the experts.
There are a number of things that can make or break a vocal artist and foremost among these is their ability to connect emotionally with an audience. Their choice of material and arrangements and the quality of the supporting musicians is also paramount. It should not surprise anyone to learn that Molly Ringwald can sing well, because she has been singing all of her life. First as a child with her Jazz Pianist father Bob Ringwald and later in big Broadway productions. Being multi-talented is not that unusual in the acting fraternity. Singing Jazz however is a riskier path and one that is not embarked upon lightly. It is seldom if ever the road to riches and the audiences are filled with armchair critics. Especially if the vocalist is a movie star.
Molly can sing beautifully. She also found ways to connect with her audience by telling a mixture of personal anecdotes and engaging stories about the songs. The choice of material was also solid, as it mixed the well-known with the lessor known ‘songbook’ standards. All of the material suited her voice but some especially so.
She opened with Dorothy Fields ‘exactly like you’ but it was the second number that really caught my attention. It was Hoagy Carmichael’s ‘I get along without you very well’. I pride myself on knowing the stories behind standards, but this ‘songbook’ story as told by Molly was quite new to me. Evidently a woman in the audience had thrust a poem into Hoagy’s hand after a concert. He forgot about the poem and then rediscovered it months later. After reading the poem he felt that he had to record a version and so he wrote music for it. The problem that then presented itself was how to find this unknown lyricist. That’s where broadcaster Walter Winchell came in. The woman was eventually located and it turned out that the poem was not about a relationship that had gone sour, but about dealing with loss after her husband died. After this poignant story the song took on a new life for me and Molly managed to convey that well.
Next up was ‘They Say Its Spring’ (Marty Clark/Bob Haymes). Blossom Dearie absolutely owned this song and while this version was not a slavish copy of Blossom’s , it clearly alluded to that version. I loved it. As the sets unfolded we heard; ‘My Old Flame’ (Johnson/Coslow), Don’t Explain (Billie Holliday), ‘Mean to Me’ (Fats Waller), ‘I’ll Take Romance’ (Rogers/Hart) , ‘It Never Entered My Mind’ (Rogers/Hart), ‘If I were a Bell’ (Frank Loessor), ‘The Very Thought of You’ (Ray Noble), ‘Just You Just Me’ (Greer/Klages), and ‘Ballad of The Sad Young Men’ (Landesman/Wolf). Not from the songbook was a carefully arranged version of ‘Don’t You Forget About Me’ (Simple Minds)
I like many versions of ‘Ballad of the Sad Young Men’, but Anita O’Day, Roberta Flack, and Keith Jarrett’s versions are particularly fine. Molly Ringwald’s version compares very favourably with these. This is not a torch song but a world-weary reflection on the emptiness that consumed the lives of many young men after the war (like ‘Lush Life’ in sentiment). Delivering such a powerful song to an audience expecting a lighter fare requires courage and skill and Molly nailed it.
Behind these songs were some very clever arrangements and with charts written specifically for the album and tour. These are the work of the respected LA pianist/arranger Peter Smith. Peter has worked with Molly for some time and so he understood exactly what is required. He is a talented pianist with great chops but he followed the most basic rule of all. An accompanist must never get in the way of the singer. It is matter of utilising just the right voicings and the chord placement must accent the singer’s performance not dominate it. Whether comping or taking a brief solo Peter was always tasteful. Not every accompanying pianist knows how to perform their duties so skilfully. The next night I invited Peter to a newly opened Jazz venue and he sat in with local musicians. In this situation he was able to let loose and he did, keyboards not withstanding.
Two well-known Auckland musicians completed the rhythm section for the Auckland leg of the tour; Tom Dennison (bass) and Frank Gibson Jr (drums). Tom has worked with many international artists and his fulsome rich tone and perfect base lines added enormous value to the performance. He often works with vocalists. Frank is also very experienced at working with offshore visitors and like Tom he has worked with many vocalists over the years. His brush work on this night was especially fine as it whispered and propelled in equal turns. Together they made for a good swinging lineup.
For just a moment I had a window into that glamorous world long past where the likes of June Christy mesmerised audiences. And yes Molly Ringwald is still stunningly beautiful. The 16-year-old Molly with the red hair and the alluring smile still shines through her more mature self. Her stage presence won’t hurt her Jazz career a bit, but it is her ability to keep singing at this level that will keep her recording and us listening.
What: ‘Except Sometimes’ by Molly Ringwald
Where: ‘The Tuning Fork’, Vector Arena Auckland 13th June 2013