Annie Ross

A Lush Life
Rex Reed
October 2005

An early cabaret season is off to a smashing start with the welcome“comeback” of jazz icon Annie Ross, every Wednesday and some Saturdays stretching into mid-October at Danny’s Skylight Room on West 46th Street, in the heart of Restaurant Row. Call 212-265-8133 for showtimes and reservations. The first can be erratic, and the latter is imperative; this living legend is packing them in. From the tongue-tickling “Twisted,” her own signature classic (penned with saxophone wizard Wardell Gray), through the tricky vocalese lyrics that she added to solos in the Count Basie band, pausing here and there for dreamy ballads like “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square,” Ms. Ross is a master class in how to sing jazz inside out, upside and down. Recently, the opportunities to hear her do this have been rare. A lifetime spent dancing recklessly on the lip of a volcano has compromised the old vocal cords, but I don’t know any other singer about whom it can be said that while the pyrotechnics of perfect pitch and tone may have left the room, it couldn’t matter less.

Talking in tempo on “One Meat Ball”, she demonstrates for all aspiring jazz singers the value of being an accomplished actress in the bargain. On songs by Victor Herbert, she doesn’t need two octaves to break your heart. She is fearless enough to sing Lorenz Hart’s bittersweet lyrics to “Nobody’s Heart” without a piano. Ms. Ross has a syncopated swing that carries you aloft on a low, lush voice that changes notes like the valves in a trombone. She has warmth and feeling and an almost spiritual connection with sophisticated lyrics that cannot be taught by a vocal coach with a metronome. Her sense of time and rhythm will fracture you. It has always been thus.

Sailing from the highlands of Scotland into the lowbrows of Hollywood at the age of 4, imitating her legendary aunt Ella (Finian’s Rainbow) Logan—brogue and all—in the “Our Gang” comedies, playing Judy Garland’s scene-stealing kid sister in the MGM musical Presenting Lily Mars, moving on to the jazz circuit, working with everyone from Billie Holiday to Miles Davis, owning her own famous club in London, marrying black drummer Kenny Clarke when such things were politically unsafe, flirting with drugs before rehab was so fashionable that it got you a spot on Dave Letterman, making history as the centerpiece of a revolutionary vocal group called Lambert, Hendricks and Ross in the 1950’s, selling out from Covent Garden to Birdland, disappearing in the 1960’s, then back from nowhere, starring in movies for Robert Altman, falling down and picking herself up and starting all over again: The story of her life could—and will—fill a book, and since nobody knows the saga better, she’s writing it herself. Between chapters, and a new CD called Let Me Sing! (out this week), Annie Ross is now making music again.

At 75, she’s still beautiful, glamorous and full of sass.... ...Nourished by a pinspot in a pomegranate-red designer gown, singing Jimmie Lunceford’s jump tune “’Taint What You Do (It’s the Way That You Do It),” she makes time stand still. And until you hear her sing an emotionally charged “Lush Life,” you haven’t lived at all. Duke Ellington used to define a successful performance as “Being in the right place at the right time, and doing the right thing before the right people.” Annie Ross did it all, and she did it before its time. Here we go again,