The classiest gesture the Kool cigarette company could make for its Super Nights jazz series would be to turn off the Kool sign during the performance -- and happily that's what they did, leaving Gerry Mulligan, Mel Torme and Sarah Vaughan at peace under a noncommittal curtain.
Last night's jazz triple-header at the Kennedy Center augurs great things for the jazz renaissance in America. It just goes to show that there's no business like pro business.
Gerry Mulligan, the long-time "king of the baritone sax," has organized a young new 12-piece big band that shows him off to perfection. Even at the fullest, the band's tone and execution were so deft that it seemed like a single instrument. Mulligan stood paternally by as, one after another, the musicians wove in and out of his balanced arrangements.
Surprisingly, the middle third of the program -- Mulligan and his band with Torme -- proved the most satisfying. Torme, who has acquired a misleading "Tonight Show" image as a sappy pop stylist, is in fact a fine and sensitive jazz vocalist with a good ear for nuance. He has an impressive range; he moved from a careful "Rainy Day," gliding through its intricate intervals like Fred Astaire on the dance floor, to a wild, impressionistic Van Gogh version of "Blues in the Night."
At one point, he and Mulligan turned themselves into a quartet, with drums and bass, Torme "scatting" his voice to match Mulligan's sax. It was a good match -- Torme's voice has more than a little of the tenor sax to it.
After the intermission, on the heels of the Mulligan-Torme tour de force, Vaughan and her quarter (headed up by her husband Waymon Reed), offered up a sure-fingered but much lighter set, like chiffon over corduroy.
Vaughan's strongest point is her ability to flow up and down octaves like a slide trombone. The overall effect is liquid and effortless.
Henry Higgins would be fascinated by Sarah Vaughan. She turns vowels into Play-Doh, stretching them all out of shape and then folding them back together again. At the end of the evening, there was a bonus for smokers in the audience: free packs of Kool's new Super Lights cigarette for which the series is so subtly named.