Cover to Cover with Jack Foley

Cover to Cover with Jack Foley – May 27, 2015

AN INTERVIEW WITH MICHAEL FEINSTEIN: MAGNILOQUENT CABARET

Jack writes,

Michael Feinstein is a brilliant entertainer and a fine singer (often backed by well-chosen, immensely talented musicians) but what makes him special—at least for me—is the sense of life he manifests. When he began to understand and sing the songs he presents, they had seemed—there is no other word for it—threatened. Rock n roll had put a lot of wonderful songwriters out of business: the nature of “popular” music seemed to have changed forever. Yet here was young Michael hunting up Gershwin and Porter and Berlin at the very moment that his contemporaries were grabbing at The Beatles and The Stones. The songs Michael loved had arisen out of a life, a mode of living, acting, behaving that had produced the songs. Feinstein, a natural piano prodigy knocked for a loop at a young age by Rhapsody in Blue, skipped college and began modestly enough to play in piano bars. But in fact what he was doing, probably without clearly knowing it, was insisting that the life he loved continued. It wasn’t just that he sang the songs: he embodied the life out of which they sprang. If he lived, it lived. Michael’s meeting and employment with Ira Gershwin gave him access to many of the figures whose work he loved: he met everyone, the songwriters, the entertainers: he steeped himself in a history which had preceded him but which he could enter effortlessly. If Michael was both Jewish and American, so was that history—with of course some significant exceptions such as Michael’s friend Harry Warren, whose name was originally Salvatore Antonio Guaragna. Michael remarks, “He changed his name to Harry Warren and everyone thought he was Jewish. Plus he was from Brooklyn, so he was able to speak Yiddish!”

As I was preparing to make the trek to Feinstein’s at the Nikko in San Francisco, some doggerel popped insistently into my head, and I sent it to Michael:

Cabaret bound–

Ready for pleasure

Listening’s a treasure

All-around sound!

I wouldn’t stay

Round these old digs

Listening to jigs

Give me the sway

Of Gershwin and Porter

Of wine and not water

Of gold and not hay—

Gimme a grab

Nothing that’s drab

I want a stab

Of wonderful, fab

Magniloquent CAB-

ARET!

Whatever the quality of that rhyme, the phrase “magniloquent cabaret” stayed with me. It was what I wanted to call Michael’s performance. Magician that he is, he makes the invisible visible. The intelligence, the unfailing taste, the fine musicianship are all to the point but are also in a certain sense irrelevant. It’s the magic that interests me.

The discussion ranges from The Great American Songbook to the greatness and character of Frank Sinatra to the question of whether The Great American Songbook embodies a Gay sensibility. This is one of the lyrics quoted during the show. It’s by Cole Porter (1929). Is it about a woman? Is it about a man?

Since first you blew in like a boisterous breeze

I often have wondered, dear,

Why gentlemen all seem to fall on their knees

The moment that you appear

Your fetching physique

Is hardly unique

You’re mentally not so hot

You’ll never win laurels

Because of your morals

But I’ll tell what you’ve got:

You’ve got that THING….

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