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Talented multitasker Lavin on Billy, the bossa nova and feminizing Fagen
BY SCOTT STIFFLER | Two times we’ve spoken with Linda Lavin, and on both occasions she was immersed in the mundane tasks of everyday existence (doing laundry and moving furniture, respectively). But that didn’t stop her from dispensing showbiz anecdotes and insider analysis with the same gusto she brought to her domestic chores.
Heavy lifting done well (and with ease) is the takeaway one gets, whether watching Lavin prowl the Broadway stage as Rita Lyons, chat up the crowd between numbers at Birdland or navigate the intricacies of jazz and Broadway standards on her debut CD, “Possibilities.”
In the liner notes to that project (which takes its title from her signature tune in the Broadway production of “It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman”), no less than Hal Prince weighs in on Lavin’s formidable range.“She had everything, that girl,” says Prince of Lavin’s rise from bit part to featured player in 1961’s “A Family Affair.” Brought in to direct as the show was floundering, Prince recalls being struck by Lavin’s “wonderfully unique singing voice, acting chops and — what else can you call it? — star quality.”
Fifty years later, the song remains the same. “Linda brings her prodigious gifts and uncommon intelligence to this material,” gushes Prince — an evaluation we can back up, having seen Lavin in concert at Birdland shortly before the 2011 release of “Possibilities.”
Besides understated, borderline melancholy takes on “It Amazes Me” and “Two for the Road,” Lavin finds room on the CD for the unorthodox. Coming at you from far left field, “Walk Between the Raindrops” is a cover from Donald Fagen’s 1982 solo album, “The Nightfly.”
Asked what inspired her to put a feminine stamp on the often lecherous voice of Steely Dan, Lavin observes that as both a singer and a lyricist, “Fagen is very masculine. I hear him all the time when my husband and I play him on road trips. His songs, they don’t speak of women’s lives, but still…I call him the ‘Lenny Bruce of music.’ I don’t understand everything he says, but I sure as hell love listening to it.”
Lavin, and likeminded Fagen fans, take note: Lenny Bruce may be gone, but the fertile mind who brought us “The Nightfly,” “Kamakiriad” and “Morph the Cat” is still alive, kicking and prolific. Fagen’s latest solo effort, the nine-track “Sunken Condos,” drops on October 16. Spoiler alert: It’s great!
As for Lavin’s 12-track debut effort, other uncommon choices include “There’s a Small Hotel” (which, best known as a duet, gets the solo treatment) and “It Might as Well Be Spring,” sung bossa nova style.
“I do as much bossa nova as I can,” explains Lavin, “because of Billy.” That’s Billy Stritch, who serves as the CD’s arranger, musical director and pianist. “Billy,” gushes Lavin in full on Hal Prince mode, “is one of the greatest interpreters of Brazilian music that we have. He expresses it sensually and beautifully. “
Lavin recalls how Stritch and Jim Caruso came to see a cabaret gig (at the now-defunct Rainbow & Stars) and encouraged her. “I’ve known Billy and Jim since 1993,” says Lavin. “We’ve played and sung together in our own living rooms since we’ve met. They’re friends, and I’m a fan of them both.”
Soon, Caruso (who currently hosts Birdland’s Monday night open mic series “Cast Party,” with Stritch at the keys) was booking Lavin in the Poconos and Palm Beach. During that period, she notes, “my husband [Steve Bakunas] who is a rock drummer, became a jazz drummer. He became my drummer, and Billy took over as musical director. Then, I was in North Carolina doing a weekend, and my agent introduced me to John Brown [currently director of the Duke University jazz program, and also producer and bass player for “Possibilities”]. Five years later, he said, ‘You gotta do a CD.’ ”
While appearing at 54 Below in support of “Possibilities,” Lavin is already plotting her next recording. “I live in Wilmington when I’m not working in New York,” she explained in our summertime interview. Since then, she and Bakunas have put a “For Sale” sign on their North Carolina home in anticipation of becoming full-time Manhattanites.
It’s at this point that we’ll resist the temptation to invoke a lyric from the beloved 70s sitcom “Alice” and point out that “There’s a new girl in town.” Instead, we’ll just note how earlier this year, a gig in Wilmington laid the groundwork for things to come. “Back in March,” Lavin recalls, “we did a concert with the 60-piece Wilmington Symphony Orchestra, [Birdland regular] Aaron Weinstein, Billy, Jim and [jazz guitarist] Bucky Pizzarelli. I would love to build on that concert for a new album.”
Sun., Sept. 23, 3pm
At 54 Below
254 W. 54th St., (btw. Broadway & 8th Ave.)
Cover Charge: $30 for bar seats
$40 for main dining area
$25 food/drink minimum
For reservations, call 866-468-7619
For info, visit 54below.com or call 646-476-3551
To purchase the CD “Possibilities,”
Also visit lindalavin.com