That they don't write lyrics the way they used to is an oft-heard lament. Maybe the explanation is the dearth of singers who can express themselves verbally. Sylvia Syms, in an opening set of standards last night at Charlie's, did not try to sound like a horn or a percussion instrument. She simply got inside the songs she sang and communicated their every nuance to a room of people who hung on every word. At the end, they whistled and stamped their feet, gave her a standing ovation and called her back for several encores.
Syms' transition in Ogden Nash's and Kurt Weill's "Speak Low" from tuneless speech to soft crooning of the melody was a clue to the natural quality of her art. A Cole Porter medley had her changing moods rapidly and radically from whispered regret to the full use of her big contralto in shouted joy. "More Than You Know" quivered with emotion, while "As Long as I Live" strutted with sass.
Syms' commanding presence and coordination of movement with both the rhythm and the sense of the songs was all the more remarkable since she sat on a low stool for all but the first number or two. Michael Abene's piano accompaniment was an instrumental mirror of Syms' art. Bassist Steve Novosel and drummer Bill Reichenbach lent steady and unobtrusive support. Syms stays through Sunday.