As time moves farther away from the 20th century, the dominance of the Great American Songbook gives the appearance of waning. Currently, that informal collection doesn’t look as if it’ll have a concomitant 21st century volume.
It really does look that way. Does anyone have a list of songs of these past 17 years that look as if they’ll last? Probably not, for the simple reason that—unlike songs of the last century when the American population knew the same songs by way of broadly popular Broadway musicals, movies and radio offering—today’s hits are familiar only to niche audiences. They’re songs not widely recognized and therefore not likely to be lodged in any overarching collection.
Indeed, today’s pop music lovers may cherish the aging Great American Songbook less and less. Often those songs are described as “timeless,” and yes, that’s what they are if a definition of “timeless” connotes melodic and lyric grace, wit and heart.
But it’s unpleasant to have to acknowledge that the G. A. S. is not timeless if—this is likely so—what was considered to be grace, wit and heart hasn’t remained the same to succeeding generations. For some this is bad news. For others—the realists among us—this is merely recognizing that things inevitably change and so must be accepted.
Therefore, music lovers who still value the songs of the receding previous century are advised to be grateful for musicians who perpetuate what has gone before. We must give regular thanks to the men and women who are committed to the tradition—many, if not most, of them pianists busy in cabaret and jazz rooms.
That group—also not large, usually centered in cosmopolitan towns and shrinking (goodbye Bobby Short, adios Blossom Dearie, farewell Barbara Carroll)—include Michael Feinstein, Steve Ross, Ronny Whyte, Daryl Sherman, Eric Yves Garcia, and Eric Comstock. The last named is someone whom Birdland’s wise proprietor Gianni Valenti has signed up for regular Saturdays at 6 p. m. gigs.
Every one of above has special appeal as he or she explores the large canon with, foremost, an eye, voice and hand to entertain. But it may be that Comstock is the one who is the most assiduous historian. (Whereas it might be said that Feinstein is the most industrious archivist.)
That these performers easily know a thousand songs—possibly (probably?) many thousands—isn’t at all in dispute, but it could be Comstock who’s the one least content to stick to the most familiar standards. He gives the impression of spending his hours away from the intimate rooms poking around in songwriters’ lesser-known files. And when, like Little Jack Horner, he pulls out a plum, he brings it on stage. More often than not, he fills in its origins with quick-tongued wordplay.
Take for instance, his most recent Birdland stop. Yes, he honored Cole Porter but with the rarely rendered “Looking at You.” He opened with the Frank Loesser-Burton Lane “The Lady’s In Love With You,” saying, as he finished, something about the lyric’s being a warning to unsuspecting men. He reprised Oscar Brown, Jr.’s “Forbidden Fruit,” stressing that the late, always-sly Brown is underrated. He reminded the crowd—with wife Barbara Fasano guesting—about John Wallowitch, himself a piano man who toiled locally in Manhattan for the most part of his life and who wrote the included “Come a Little Closer.”
Sure, Comstock remembered the Gershwin brothers George and Ira with “Who Cares?” but also the less-heard “Things Are Looking Up.” He did a chart-topping Carolyn Leigh medley—“Witchcraft” (Cy Coleman, the composer) and “How Little We Know” (Phil Springer, the composer).
He had fun with the E. Y. Harburg-Harold Arlen “If I Only Had a Heart.” And that means genuine fun. Often, when singers play around with a lyric and tempo, the result is a fractured ditty. Not when Comstock tickles a tune. He gives amusing little enhancing nudges to the sentiments expressed.
Note that Comstock doesn’t just hew to the past. Occasionally, he does go contemporary. With bassist Stan Smith he played Smith’s ‘Paradise With a Catch,” which Smith introduced as his having composed it in a Paris hotel room. He sang a cutie called “I Like Pie,” with music by Renee Rosnes and lyrics by top-drawer music writer David Hajdu. It’s a good bet Hajdu is the first wordsmith ever to rhyme “tangy” with “meringue-y.” Kudos to him for that.
All the same, it might be misleading to carry on about a set now in the annals when, knowing all the songs he does, Comstock changes his material every time he sits down anew at a club. What doesn’t alter is his tongue-in cheek charm as he plays, sings and/or speaks. Would anyone else take the phrase “Oh, gee” and transmute it into “oggi,’’ the Italian for “today”—and do that morphing with accompanying gesture? No one else would.
Comstock is next at Birdland August 19 and 26, September 16 and October 14 and 21. Be there or be very 21st-century square.