Marilyn Maye’s a trip.
The veteran club singer, now in her 80s, produced 90 minutes of music and banter for an enthusiastic audience Thursday night at Quality Hill Playhouse. She had the crowd eating out of her hand, which is hardly surprising because there was little about the performance that wasn’t impressive.
Maye comes from an era when pop music and jazz overlapped and that’s still her approach. Backed by a splendid trio — pianist Tedd Firth, bassist Gerald Spaits and drummer Jim Ekloff — Maye dished up amazingly diverse material.
The set list included jazz classics (“Take Five” by Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond), show tunes (“Butter Out of Cream” from “Catch Me If You Can,” “There’s a Boat That’s Leavin’ Soon for New York” from “Porgy and Bess”) and pop hits (Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind,” Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil’s “Make Your Own Kind of Music.”)
All of it got filtered through Maye’s jazz sensibility, her unerring sense of rhythm and an infallible awareness of her vocal abilities. All of us can cite examples of fine singers who continued their careers after their voices were depleted. Maye is not one of them. She knows exactly what she’s doing vocally.
The only arguable misstep of the evening was Maye’s decision to write some lyrics of her own for “My Personal Property,” Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields’ valentine to New York City. Maye wrote a verse redirecting the song’s focus from the Big Apple to Kansas City. Let’s just say it wasn’t a comfortable fit.
Maye knows how to work an audience, and it was tough to resist her disarming deadpan humor or her ability to seize a moment and run with it. When a couple came in 30 minutes after the show started and took their seats on the front row, Maye looked at them and said, “Oh, you’ve missed so much.” Without missing a beat, she signaled the band and they raced through a series of highlights from the first half hour of the show at warp speed. It was if somebody had hit the rewind button.
She delivered a nice version of Kander-and-Ebb’s “New York, New York,” a surprisingly moody reading of the Four Seasons hit “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of Your” and a poignant rendition of “Look For the Silver Lining,” a song by Jerome Kern and B.G. DeSylva made famous by Marilyn Miller, the singer for whom Maye’s mother named her.
Maye generously shared the stage with her musicians, who can only be described as a crack jazz unit. On “Take Five” everyone got to take a solo and the results were exceptional. Ekloff’s work behind the drum kit was good for an adrenaline rush or two, as was Spaits’ precise bass lines and Firth’s fluid piano playing.