TOM BURLINSON ★★★½
City Recital Hall, December 13
Reviewed by JOHN SHAND
As ingenious as the lyrics of Cole Porter, Ira Gershwin, Lorenz Hart and others might be, the secret to a song becoming a standard lies not in the words. It’s the countless jazz instrumental renditions that ultimately raise a song to “standard” status. But that doesn’t mean the words are merely decorative. The greatest jazz musicians milk the lyrics for meaning in the way they play and improvise, and singers, of course, live or die as much by the words as the melodies.
Called Swingin’ the Great Standards, this show was an extensive trawl through the Great American Songbook. Tom Burlinson has long sung this material in his post-Sinatra way, and, as a song like Cy Coleman’s The Rules of the Road showed, he has the intrinsic skills to make the process feel relaxed and easy, aided by his elasticity of phrasing and instinct for when to snap a syllable back on to the beat.
Burlinson has limits, though. Sinatra was blessed with the ability to emote, be masculine and not become sentimental, all simultaneously. Others, ranging from Lennon to Domingo, have shared this, but most male singers who attempt vulnerability start to sink into a sea of sticky sentimentality. Burlinson solved the issue by skimming the surface of the emotion implicit in songs like Night and Day or How Deep is the Ocean, while those containing no emotional spike put him deep in a comfort zone where he offered cruisy tours of Dancing Cheek to Cheek, On a Clear Day or The Lady Is a Tramp.
In chatting about the material, Burlinson sang unaccompanied snatches of other songs by the relevant composer. Although this started to become cheesy, it did show off a more intimate side of his voice, suggesting he could solve that emotional conundrum more readily were he not accompanied by an 18-piece orchestra (including strings). Perhaps his finest work in this vein might come with a trio or quintet, giving him the aural space to let a word hang in the air and gather meaning.