30 October 2013 11:05AM
When Jim Wann sings Johnny Mercer, you can hear the South. You can also hear the humor, and the wit. And the longing. (I should have known that the man who wrote “Skylark” was filled with longing.) Songs written long after he left home, as most of them were, were tinged with Savannah. Savannah was intrinsic to Mercer’s view of life, and the world, and Wann, another southern boy, is his true amanuensis.
Of course, Mercer didn’t write “Skylark,” or the vast majority of his 1500 (!) songs alone. Johnny was a lyricist, the consummate lyricist, a conjurer of endlessly inventive images and wordplay. He was a musician, a good singer and composer in his own right, but he chose, wisely, to work with some of the best composers of his era—Hoagy Carmichael, Harold Arlen, Harry Warren, Henry Mancini—and produced some of our most loved songs. Besides “Skylark,” we heard about twenty of them, some only titles in a hit-laden medley. From the surprising dexterity of lyrics remembered only as ditties, like “The Glow Worm” and “Accentuate the Positive,” to the aching beauty of “Skylark,” “Moon River,” and “The Days of Wine and Roses,” to ”Blues in the Night” (according to Arthur Schwartz “probably the best blues song ever written,” they just keep coming.
Equally wise, Wann doesn’t sing and play alone either. As good as he is, he’s smart enough to “share the spotlight,” with two terrific, versatile musicians. Wann, Rideout and Henn are a trio born at Helsinki, and made in heaven. They never played together before, and sound as if they’ve been playing together forever. It’s impossible not to share their delight in each other.
The goofy, great Ritt Henn, on bass, is also a swell singer, and the extraordinary Leenya Rideout plays violin, mandolin, and her own soaring, simply beautiful instrument. (It’s a shame the planned Broadway revival of Wann’s wonderful “Pump Boys and Dinettes” was canceled. Rideout was to star.)
In any case, I’m grateful to Lee Tannen and Tom Wells for Helslnki on Broadway, and to Marc and Deborah for Helsinki. Wann and Mercer and friends are thrilling, funny, and so much fun.
And by the way, though Wann and his wife and collaborator, Patricia, still spend two months a year in Georgia, they spend the rest in Claverack, so he’s a local boy too.