CHRISTMAS TIME IS HERE with LITTLE JIMMY SCOTT opening for DIANNE REEVES , at Massey Hall (178 Victoria), Wednesday (December 21), 8 pm. $49.50-$69.50. 416-872-4255. Rating: NNNNN
The decision to have elegant jazz chanteuse Dianne Reeves headline Christmas Time Is Here, Massey Hall's special holiday-season event, makes perfect sense.
Although the three-time Grammy winner is currently getting rave reviews for her smouldering swing through the standards on the soundtrack to George Clooney's film Goodnight, And Good Luck, Reeves released her own jazzy spin on the yuletide classics last year on her Christmas Time Is Here disc (Blue Note), so she'll have no shortage of timely material to perform.
However, the appearance of the fabulous Little Jimmy Scott on the bill is a bit of a surprise, since this jazz singer's jazz singer has never recorded a Christmas tune in his amazing five-decade-plus career. Yet when you consider that the 80-year-old Scott is one of the greatest jazz vocal stylists ever his emotionally charged delivery inspired everyone from Nancy Wilson, Johnnie Ray and Dinah Washington to Marvin Gaye, Tony Bennett and Joe Pesci (who got his start in show business as the singing waiter "Little Joe," a Little Jimmy Scott tribute act) such minor oversights are of no real consequence.
"It's true that I haven't done a Christmas album before," confesses Scott from his Cleveland home, "but I'm planning to start recording one soon for release next year. There's some really beautiful music written with a Christmas theme. They're songs that definitely have their own identity."
Don't count on hearing anything too cheery or upbeat from the master of the heartbreak ballad, whose signature style is based on singing slower than anyone else. So you can cross Jingle Bells off the list, and Frosty The Snowman is right out.
"Of course, I'm going for more of a relaxed feel, but what's really most important is that the lyrics have to be right for me. I've always loved what the song I'll Be Home For Christmas has to say, and I think I'll do Silent Night, too. I might even try a couple of them in Toronto. As you continue along in show business, you have to learn to adapt to whatever the situation may be."
Long-time fans of Scott will be relieved to know that even though he's just playing an opening set, he'll still be performing many of his best-loved standards. Even after 50 years, he hasn't grown tired of singing them.
"I still enjoy doing They Say It's Wonderful, I Cried For You, Motherless Child and Embraceable You, because it's my wife's favourite song.
"An appealing melody is important, but what really matters is whether the song has a life in it, and that comes from the lyrics. As a singer, you need to understand what you're singing about to be able to feel the music inwardly so you can express it outwardly.
"The lyrics don't neccessarily need to relate to me personally, as long as there are some ideas that touch on parts of real life. A song is a song, and I'll attempt to sing anything I think is right for me if I can control the melody."
Part of the way Scott takes control of a song is through his unusual phrasing, meticulously paced in way that leaves you hanging on every syllable. When he delivers a song, he's clearly working in a time all his own.
"From the time I started listening to music on the radio, I liked the slow ballads. So when it came time to create my own style, that's what I did. I found that singing slowly gave me a certain freedom, a freedom within myself to express my innermost feelings.
"I know the way I sing has influenced a lot of people over the years, and I've got no problem with that. In fact, I encourage it. Gimmicks are fine, and they might make you some money, but that has nothing to do with music. If a singer can learn something about real music the true notes from hearing me sing, that's a wonderful thing."