A Tribute to Dinah Washington, with Barbara Morrison
Better than…a blues tribute to Vince Vaughn.
Last night at Hollywood's shiniest jazz club, Catalina Bar & Grill, Barbara Morrison led a 17-piece big band in a tribute to the late singing legend Dinah Washington. It's curious that Morrison would bring her show to Catalina's considering she has her very own venue in Leimert Park, less than fifteen minutes away and with better parking options. Nonetheless, with help from conductor John Stephens, the Barbara Morrison Performing Arts Center All Star Big Band (BMPACASBB?) played a hard swinging set for just over an hour with the ebullient Ms. Morrison joyously driving the train.
The big band opened without Morrison, finding their groove with a ten minute set of standards like “Take the A Train.” The rhythm section, particularly the drummer, ran like a wild horse early in the show, causing conductor John Stephens to loudly clap the tempo he desired more than once. A few audience members mistook the cue as an indication that they should clap too.
Morrison lost part of her leg to complications from diabetes last summer, so it is always rather inspiring to see her. She is adapting well to her new lifestyle and got herself on the stage with very little effort and sat down next to the piano player.
For a Dinah Washington tribute, Morrison opened with an Aretha Franklin number, “Don't Let Me Lose This Dream.” The band replaced Aretha's original bossa feel with a hard swing that set the tone for the evening.
Turns out Morrison was supposed to be performing as Dinah Washington, so all her between-song patter was in first person but about the life of Washington. It was a slightly confusing premise that made it unclear what era Washington she was going for.
Outside of the acting parts, Morrison was in top form. Her coy teases and natural likability cannot be buried under a character, and her singing voice is as crisp and personal as ever. The band gelled with Morrison on a raucous “Confessin' the Blues” in tribute to Kansas City's Jay McShann, while “Relax Max” found Morrison in a playful mood with just the rhythm section and a flautist. A compassionate sing/speak version of “Blow Top Blues” was a demure highlight that featured Morrison a capella, aided only by her conductor's reading glasses.
In honor of Ray Charles, Morrison sang “Hallelujah, I Love Her So” with help from vocalist Billy Valentine. It was a shame that Valentine was only on stage for the one song. He had just the right amount of soulful sandpaper to rival Morrison onstage.
She closed with a couple of standards, “Every Day I Have the Blues” and “What a Difference a Day Makes,” that got a few audience members up and dancing in the dark corners of the sprawling club.
When their band found their groove and Morrison put aside personas to just sing like the diva she is, there was swinging perfection. It's great to see Morrison continuing to command a stage. If only we can get that sizable crowd to come down to Leimert Park.
Personal Bias: Sometimes I get my mid-century jazz singers confused.
The Crowd: People who vividly remember going to Dinah Washington concerts.
Random Notebook Dump: It's hard to believe that having a 17-piece band was ever a profitable enterprise.