Review: Marlene VerPlanck at Ronnie Scott's

Sally Evans-Darby finds that Marlene VerPlanck's sound is as fresh and fearless as ever at a packed afternoon performance at Ronnie Scott's, London

Considering the scope and longevity of Ms VerPlanck's career, it's hard to believe that she could still be singing with such verve, warmth, and indubitable sincerity. Yet her lunchtime concert at Ronnie Scott's on Sunday 17 March, part of her annual UK spring tour, was undeniable proof that this lady still swings.

Supported by her excellent UK trio (Paul Morgan on bass, John Pearce on piano, Bobby Worth on drums), Ms VerPlanck delivered a set characterised by her signature audience rapport and deep, personal connection with every song she sang – which was a mix of well-known and lesser-known standards. It was a wet, grey afternoon in London and it seemed the audience – making up a full house – had huddled inside the cosy club against the lingering winter chill. And if it was warmth they were looking for, that's what they got.

From the opening number to the encore, Ms VerPlanck's set was made up of songs with a central theme – the youthful optimism of a first love. It's a theme that could easily stray into trite or corny waters, but not in Ms VerPlanck's hands. Although she has been recording since 1955 and is – incredibly – approaching her eightieth year, each song was sang as if for the first time. Her delivery is indelibly as if each standard – its melody, its lyrics, its message – is a surprise even as she sings it; a gift to be unwrapped lovingly and shared with her rapt audience.

One of her opening numbers, Fun To Be Fooled, an Arlen/Ira Gershwin composition, summed up Ms VerPlanck's way with a tune: a spritely sense of mischief ("fun to be kissed!"), and a completely convincing engagement with the lyric ("fun to exist!"). Jerome Kern's Let's Begin was similarly handled, with the teasing lyric "which is it going to be – love or gin?" eliciting appreciative chuckles from the audience. Another appealing feature of Marlene VerPlanck's shows is her inclusion of the often-neglected verse before the song's main refrain; a particular example in this set being Embraceable You, whose rarely performed verse colours the song to make it feel fresh and new.

The majority of the set was upbeat, with a swinging, toe-tapping tempo, but the couple of mournful ballads were also a treat. Guess I'll Hang My Tears Out To Dry in particular was an absorbingly sombre performance. The set also contained a couple of songs written by Ms VerPlanck's late husband, Billy VerPlanck, as well as tunes composed by "those New York piano bar players", including Murray Grand, who, as Ms VerPlanck wistfully put it, are "now all gone".

Paul Morgan's bass work was another thoroughly captivating element of the set, characterised by his striking, strident tone and obvious rapport with the other players. "We're gonna make him work hard!" Ms VerPlanck declared on the Bernice Petkere number Close Your Eyes, and that he certainly did, with the first few lines of the song performed as a taut duet between bass and vocal.

The set ended with a thrilling race through the Lerner/Lane composition Come Back To Me, with Ms VerPlanck imbuing the lyric with a desperate, heartfelt urgency: "Blast your hide, hear me call / Must I fight City Hall? / Here and now, damn it all! / Come back to me!". As with all her performances, Ms VerPlanck scanned the room as she sang, drawing her audience into the lyric; and when she looked in your direction, it was hard not to believe she was singing directly to you.

Marlene VerPlanck has an uncanny ability to catch at the truth of a lyric and make an old song sound new, and Sunday's concert was further extremely enjoyable testament to that. Here's wishing her many more years of performing.

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