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Jack Jones At The Algonquin: The Younger Elder Statesman Of Song

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I've got a bootleg recording of a Dean Martin show at the Sands in Las Vegas. It's not the show itself that's interesting -- he did virtually the same song selection, comedy bits and boozy jokes for years. It's the date of the show that fascinates me. It took place on Friday night, February 7, 1964, the day the Beatles landed in New York for the first time, and the day Dino and his swingin' cronies went from being at the top of the entertainment heap to yesterday's news. I've always wondered if the audience at the show that night, or the star himself, realized the sea change that was taking place at that very moment.

9/9/09 found us awash again in the latest wave of Beatlemania, with the release of the Beatles: Rock Band game and the Fab Four's remastered CDs making them headline news one more time. And it also saw Jack Jones, a member of the pre-Beatles old guard, opening his annual run of shows at the Oak Room of the Algonquin Hotel in New York. Both the Beatles and Jones are "old guard" now, of course, but the generational differences are still striking. There were no T-shirts or graying ponytails to be seen in the intimate, posh setting of the Oak Room, and the mood was sedate and elegant, not rockin'; a couple of the more elderly patrons could be caught catching a quick bit of shut-eye during the set.

Jack Jones is closer in age to the Beatles than to Sinatra -- in fact, he's only two years older than Ringo Starr -- and he was one of the last of the Sinatra-styled crooners to hit big before the Beatles permanently altered the pop scene. His biggest hit, "Wives And Lovers," was in the Top 20 when "I Want To Hold Your Hand" was released, and throughout the '60s, when non-rock pop music could still coexist commercially with the newer stuff, he consistently made the upper reaches of the charts with both singles and albums.

But by the '70s, it was clear that he was on the wrong side of the pop culture divide. For a while, he tried getting down with the groovy sounds the kids were digging -- a live album from 1970 features him gamely going at tunes like "Get Together" and "Spinning Wheel" -- and for a long while, his records were bogged down with bland middle-of-the-road pop that didn't entice older listeners or win over younger fans. Apart from a fluke hit with the disco-ish theme from The Love Boat, his career as a relevant pop artist was over.

In the '90s, Jones finally embraced his younger-elder statesman status, turning, for the most part (although not completely), away from Sting and Steve Perry back to Gershwin, Cy Coleman and the like. His latest stint at the Oak Room finds him paying tribute to the work of Alan and Marilyn Bergman, adult-pop songwriters who came of age in the rock era and were embraced, for better ("What Are You Doing The Rest Of Your Life") or worse ("The Way We Were"), by many old-guard singers during their heyday in the '70s and '80s. Jones introduced the set thusly: "You know the story. Boy meets girl, boy gets girl, boy loses girl. And tonight, the role of the boy will be played by Jack Jones."

Looking natty, with a full head of brilliant white hair, Jones performed a set heavy on the Bergmans' sentimental slower fare, accompanied by a trio led by the great pianist/arranger Mike Rienzi. I can't say I wanted to hear fare like "It Might Be You" (best known from the film Tootsie) or the slightly ridiculous "Windmills Of Your Mind," no matter how well he sings them. But when the material matched the performances, as on "Nice N' Easy" or "That Face," he was brilliant. And he even managed to salvage the godawful "The Way We Were" by sticking it in a medley with "How Do You Keep The Music Playing," one of the best songs written by the Bergmans or damn near anyone in recent decades.

Jones is recovering from relatively minor but nagging health problems, but his voice is still remarkably spry. Apart from a trace of gravel in the throat here and there, you couldn't ask for better from a 71-year-old singer. He was not only able to belt out the high notes, he was able to hit them, and hold them, softly as well. That not only takes lung power but good vocal cords. Most septugenarian singers have lost something off their range or have their pipes clogged with phlegm or other assorted crap. Not so with Jack Jones -- he's still in the ballpark with his mid '60s self.

Emotionally, he's gained resonance -- during some of the more affecting ballads, he seemed near tears, and it was reflected in his singing. He told a great story about his manager, Jack E. Leonard, who told him, "If only you'd fall in love, so you could understand what you're singing about." "So I met a girl," Jones said, "and I started getting all these feelings, seeing stars when we kissed, the works. So I told Jack, 'I think this is it.' He said, 'Good. Now if she'd only break up with you.' And bless her heart, she did."

Jack Jones is one of a vanishing breed of vocalists who flourished in the '50s and '60s, and as one of the youngest of the bunch, he's probably as close as you'll get to those halcyon days -- and in a nifty little room with great acoustics to boot. He'll be playing the Oak Room at the Algonquin through September 19. It's a pricey proposition, especially in the middle of recession, but if you love great pop vocalizing, you'll get your money's worth.