If you were a cool jazz fan, and I told you that I had a recording of a combo including Gerry Mulligan on sax, George Duvivier on bass, and Bill Mays on keys, and guest vocal performances by Sarah Vaughn and Mel Torme, you might say “Hey, that sounds pretty good.”
Now imagine the front man for that combo is Barry Manilow.
Yes, that Barry Manilow.
The two sides of the record are called “Set 1” and “Set 2,” and that’s how they play, like cocktail lounge sets. There are instrumental segues between the tracks that smell like cigarettes and cheap liquor, so that each side is about 20 minutes of continuous performance. The accomplished jazz musicians take turns with improv licks around Barry’s vocals. In Set 1, Sarah Vaughn steps in to duet on “Blue”. On the flipside, Mel Torme shines on the beautifully simple “Big City Blues”. Those two performances are worth the purchase, but “What Am I Doin’ Here” stands as a powerful opener for the second set to go beyond the “Is that really Manilow?” mystique.
Some of the chords seem unnecessarily forced to sound so jazzy they force you to consider the “anti-Manilow” depth of the performance, but there is nothing experimental about this jazz offering. It’s exactly what you’d expect from that hot little club just far enough from the tourist spots and the airport to remain a locals’ secret, where pros still show up occasionally to remember what it was like before they were packing serious concert halls.
Not to diminish Manilow’s performance at all. He’s got the chops to stay in these careful selections. And the result is a nice way to spend 45 minutes in your easy chair, late at night, and have another scotch-on-the-rocks to wash away the hassles of the daytime.