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David Finkle

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First Nighter: The Great Barbara Carroll Even Greater at the Algonquin's Oak Room

Posted: 09/19/11 03:36 PM ET

In the late '40s Barbara Carroll propelled herself and her training in the classics out of Worcester, Massachusetts. She was intent on playing Big Apple jazz. It wasn't long before she was doing just that in clubs like The Embers, where she shared the spotlight with the likes of Joe Bushkin, or at the Downbeat, where she was tinkling downstairs while singers like Billie Holiday were upstairs.

And don't you know that 65 years or so on and in her mid-80s, she's still doing what she does best and what few others even begin to do as well as. Nowadays she does it more regularly at the Oak Room at the Algonquin, where management is wise enough to turn the paneled room over to her every Sunday brunch.

She's just started her eighth season, and the wonder of it is that, if anything, she's used the showcase -- which the space indisputably is -- as a swank laboratory in which she's only gotten better. It's an intimate arena where -- unlike the 24 years she toiled in the Carlyle's Bemelmans Bar -- she's the focus of all eyes and ears and not simply background music for imbibing Upper East Siders to smoosh by.

In the room, she clearly feels free to rise from the bench and chat with the crowd (often telling a story or two about Dorothy Parker and the Round Table) and singing in her light voice, an instrument that, as with the pianos she plays, she never, ever abuses but infuses with joy the way her buddy Tony Bennett still does and her late colleague Bobby Short unfailingly did.

But while she always chants a few songs in her hour-plus set, it's the inspired tinkling that makes her the classiest woman in town. Though she long ago left off playing strictly classical music, she's hardly left it behind and often prefaces a Great American Songbook standard into which she's about to delve with something Bach-fugue-like or maybe plangent measures from a George Gershwin concerto. That's why, in part, her pieces often turn into jazz rhapsodies, simultaneously lush and hip jazz fantasies. In one stretch she can toss off stride mannerisms and in the next run through a series of descending legato notes with what seems impossible dexterity.

(Incidentally, with red hair pulled back in a French knot and with her sloping nose at pert angles, she's also one of cabaret's best-dressed fixtures.)

It would be nice to point out the highlights of her fall opening, but since the kick-off program consisted of one highlight after another -- in a sequence of many moods -- an amazed listener can only report that she started with "Up With the Lark," by Jerome Kern, a favorite composer of hers. Whether she intended it or not, Leo Robin's title also suggested the cheerful promise with which Carroll played.

She followed Kern with a pensive and pertinent medley of Vernon Duke's "Autumn in New York" and the Ralph Burns-Woody Herman "Early Autumn." But there's no reason to go through the entire show, since she does tweak it from week to week. Let's just say her version of the Lorenz Hart-Richard Rodgers "My Funny Valentine" was also delivered in a deeply reflective mood. She honored Billy Strayhorn's "Lotus Blossom" and "Something to Live For" in similar fashion.

Increasingly, Carroll has taken to Stephen Sondheim, and, believe you me, she may single-handedly (make that double-handedly) be responsible for illustrating once and for all how his melodies are in no way inferior to his much-lauded lyrics but are among the most arresting ever imagined for Broadway.

For some time, she's included "Hey, Old Friend" as a closer or a next-to-closer. Ever since she heard Sondheim's "The Best Thing That Has Ever Happened" from the less-than-great Road Show, she's been devoted to it. This outing, she included it in a medley with Rodgers's "Something Good," singing both in her breezy fashion. In the Sondheim medley she invariably dispenses and features Leonard Bernstein's "Gee, Officer Krupke," she sang "Did a Parade Pass By?" and the surpassingly strong "With So Little to Be Sure Of." (Carroll has recently said she'd like to record an all-Sondheim CD. If only she would!)

At the Algonquin, Carroll is always joined by bassist Jay Leonhart. It wouldn't be overstating matters to say they're really a team, instinctively knowing at all turns where each other is headed. Leonhart, who has a sense of humor Carroll obviously enjoys, frequently accompanies his riffs by vocalizing loudly enough to be heard but softly enough not to be obtrusive. On the Caroline Leigh-Cy Coleman "You Fascinate Me So," they sang together, seemingly improvising a coda. As they finished it, Carroll called for a repeat. Repeat it, they did -- to the audience's delight. Later, swapping musical challenges, Carroll rat-a-tatted a lengthy phrase at the end of which Leonhart said, "You win."

Maybe he was truly acknowledging that she'd flummoxed him. Maybe he was just going for the genuinely amusing joke. What's not in dispute when Carroll and Leonhart work together at the Algonquin's Oak Room is that it's the shrewd customers who are the full-out winners.