As a jazz fan, I always love going to the Village Vanguard. Sitting in the club, you can feel the room’s connection with Miles, Coltrane, Sonny, Evans, Dolphy and all of the jazz past, present and future. The club’s pedigree elevates the level of performances on its stage. And so when I got invited to see Barbra Streisand there, how could I refuse?
Playing to a jam-packed house filled with contest winners, Streisand’s family and friends (including President Clinton and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton), and film crew (and their lighting equipment), the show was as much an intimate gathering of friends as it was a film session as it was a concert. Streisand performed a mix of standards, tracks from her new album and her signature hits.
Eschewing an opening act for introductions by Vanguard owner Ruth Gordon and some of the other people who helped Streisand first break into success as a performer at various clubs (of a now-bygone era) in the Village kicked the evening off with the special feel. The audience was part of a small intimate party and performance.
Once the show started, however, from one perspective, we were taken out of the immediacy and intimacy of the show. Sitting on the side of the room towards the front, the view of pianist Tamir Hendelman was blocked, but the view of Streisand’s teleprompter was clear. So we could read the script that Streisand followed. To one extent, this took away from any sense that the set was a loose, improvised and breezy little set in front of a group of friends, but was a reminder of the major film production part of the hybrid nature of the evening.
On the other hand, having a sense of that a good deal of the banter was scripted gives one a tremendous appreciation of why Streisand is in such high regard as a performer, because you could see how much meaning she puts into every phrase. And though the teleprompter cues were used more as reminders of the points she wanted to discuss rather than a script, Streisand’s voice is so expressive that she could (as the trope goes) read the phone book and make it engaging, dynamic and interesting. Whether Streisand’s performance is impeccably rehearsed or spontaneously improvised, I doubt you could tell the difference, because her dynamics are so precise and expressive.
Unlike most broadway-style performers, nothing about Streisand’s performance felt artificial or calculated. It all felt natural, heartfelt and authentic. And it’s not to say that the show was perfected to within an inch of its life. There was enough of a rough edge to the set that Streisand walked off stage to close the set one song earlier than she intended. As a result, the audience got an encore twice as long as intended.
The backing quartet, led by pianist Hendelman, was impeccable, but also unobtrusive and rarely featured. Hendelman played one well constructed and melodic solo and tasteful segues and vamps between songs. But for a album intended to be more of a jazz album at the country’s premier jazz club, there was no swing to the set until the final encore, “The Way We Were,” where the drummer switched to sticks from brushes for the first time in the set and the guitarist added interesting and tasteful soaring lines.
But since Streisand’s voice was the top-billed star of the show, in impeccable form, that’s what carried the show. Anthony Tommasini interviewed Streisand for the New York Times and discussed her vocal technique. Streisand’s Fine Instrument and Classic Instinct
“[Streisand] revealed herself as a vocal artist with powerful, if innate, insights into phrasing, legato, vibrato, interpretive nuances and, most important, the art of singing as an expression of words.… Opera singers might learn from Ms. Streisand’s way of treating singing as an extension of acting. In working so hard to cultivate the beauty and carrying power of their voices, too many opera singers compromise with indistinct diction and generic expression. Ms. Streisand sings as if she is speaking to you.”
That’s what carried the show. Not the songs, not the dynamic interplay between the singer and her band, but her voice. Which is not to say that there weren’t moments where the arrangements came together to propel, as in “My Funny Valentine,” which was one of the high points of the night. But on other songs, such as “Make Someone Happy,” where Streisand’s voice conveyed deep emotions and forged a connection with the audience, and she embodied all the pathos of the song and earned a standing ovation. And despite a lack of songs at anything faster than a ballad, the set did have an arc and momentum that carried it to the end, culminating with classic standards (“Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered”) and her own signature hits (“Evergreen” and “The Way We Were.”)
All in all, a tremendous performance, and an encouragement for all major musical artists to play rooms a few sizes smaller than they ordinarily would, to try material in more intimate arrangement and less stage-managed settings.
The Village Vanguard Set List
The New York Times, Lucky Streisand Fans Were A-Listers for a Night
NPR, Barbra Streisand, Live At The Village Vanguard?
The Barbra Streisand Forum, An Evening with Barbra Streisand at VV (The Show)