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First Nighter: Cabaret Thrushes Stacey Kent, Karen Oberlin Flying High and Low

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Maybe because she's just releasing a Blue Note CD entirely in French called Raconte-Moi, fresh-faced, short-cropped-redheaded Stacey Kent, warbling at Birdland this week, suddenly made me think of Jean Seberg in Jean-Luc Godard's 1960 classic film Breathless. She's got that sort of naughty-innocent way about her, that as-yet-unsullied joie de vivre.

Joy infuses everything she sings with a vocal zing -- which she's showing off this week as part of her current stateside tour. Wearing an understated black dress that seemed to whisper "Paris original," she demonstrated that, as she continues to work with mellow saxophonist-husband Jim Tomlinson, she only gets better and better.

One of Kent's distinguishing factors is a special way of phrasing that may not be what the songwriter(s) had in mind but always sounds exactly right. "I'll make my tricks sound like no tricks at all," she could be saying as she runs, skips, hops and sometimes only saunters through whatever repertoire she's decided to give the once-over.

Although she may strike this fan as reminiscent of "Breathless," she's never a bout de souffle, as the flick's original title has it. She's always in complete control of her craft, and smiling throughout her breezy commitment to it. Those left breathless are those lucky enough to be listening to her. How does she do it and yet remain so utterly unaffected, so winning?

The communal audience breathlessness began this trip (she's American but lives in England) with a French translation of Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Waters of March," with which she opened and sang, appropriately, as if the words and notes were spring thaw flowing over pebbles in a mountain stream.

Included in the 12-song mix were the cute "Breakfast on the Morning Tram" and "Jardin d'Hiver" she often likes to deliver as well as several songs from the new album, a couple of which were written for her. "The Ice Hotel" is another one devised for her--by hubby Tomlinson, who, incidentally, soloed stunningly on "For All We Know."

New to me this frame was Kent on the guitar, which she plays adeptly. Mentioning that she'd studied Portuguese last summer at Middlebury, she eased into Jobim's "Corcovado," using the inspired Gene Lees lyric. That's the one that goes, "I, who was lost and lonely, believing life was only a bitter, tragic joke, have found in you the meaning of existence, oh, my love!" I regularly judge "Corcovado" interpreters on which translations they use; if they don't use Lee's unflinching words, they lose points. Kent gained many.

I'd say that Kent's set -- Art Hirahara on piano, Gordy Johnson on bass, Phil Hey on drums (and doesn't Kent love moving to their rhythms!) -- was flawless, but there is one aspect I think could be adjusted. For audience members who may or may not speak French, she should probably be more generous with the translations. She claims the contents are self-explanatory, but they really aren't. Still, the set was superlative.

Across town in The Oak Room at the Algonquin, Karen Oberlin, an attractive blonde with an attractive voice, continues "Heart & Soul: A Centenary Celebration of Frank Loesser." She hasn't, however, paid enough attention to the title she's chosen. As she deploys the pleasant and often soothing tones, she doesn't give out very often with either heart or soul.

Rather, whenever she gets to a ballad, she goes into some distancing pseudo-emotional mode. It's as if she's channeling the type of chanteuse that used to show up in '40's movies entertaining the smart supper-club crowd. Yes, the Oak Room is a supper club, but nowadays ringsiders want to hear songs sung from the heart, songs sung with soul -- not café-society overlay. With the adroit Jon Weber at the piano, Oberlin gives unconvincing treatments to "I Don't Want to Walk Without You," 'I've Never Been in Love Before" and even "The Inchworm." (Imagine someone singing the words "two and two are four, four and four are eight" as if having a dramatic epiphany.) As a result, I began to hope she wouldn't sing any more of the Loesser love songs I particularly favor. Nevertheless, she did get to "I Wish I Didn't Love You So."

One Loesser great she doesn't include is "Adelaide's Lament," which I might not have minded, since she lightened up through the comedy songs. She hardly has original deliverer Betty Hutton's pizzazz on something like "Hamlet," but at least she drops the affectations. And they get the biggest response, although for most of the material -- about which she gives biographical data but little comment on, for instance, Loesser's inspired fooling around with form -- there's the abiding sense that the audience is applauding Loesser first and foremost -- and Oberlin secondarily for not getting too much in the way. Which I suppose is an especially blunt example of damning with faint praise.

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