I first heard Abigail Rockwell about a year ago, partnering with the great guitarist Sean Harkness in a duo show called Rock & Hark. It was an entertaining debut with great promise and when I saw it a second time a couple of months later at Cafe Noctambulo at Pangea, the show had tightened and had a more solid, more satisfying arc. Rockwell recently returned to the club (which is fast becoming one of New York’s best) with a brand new solo show, “Autumn Noir: Echoes of Jazz.” It was not entirely solo, of course: she shared the stage with a particularly fine trio led by pianist Gary Versace (whose fresh, distinctive arrangements were a constant pleasure), Michael O’Brien on bass, and Brian Fischler on drums.
With her flowing blond hair and sultry good looks, Rockwell is the perfect cabaret embodiment of a femme fatale from a black & white Hollywood mystery—the dame who knocks on the world-weary detective’s door, hardened by life and in need of help. Her smoky, emotive voice completed the picture as she maneuvered through an inspired program of classic and original songs with moments of drama, mystery, humor and ill-fated romance. Her patter took the shape of a voice-over for the film noir genre that had inspired her—poetic, questioning, pointed, and evocative of that whole era.
The Chet Baker classic “Let’s Get Lost” (Frank Loesser, Jimmy McHugh) was the perfect entrance to this heightened world. She was able to wring every ounce of sensuality out of “Summer Me, Winter Me” (Michel Legrand, Marilyn & Alan Bergman) in an arrangement that gave it a kind of ethereal majesty, enhanced by a gorgeous bass solo by O’Brien. The patter for “Miss Brown to You” (Richard Whiting, Ralph Rainger, Leo Robin) brilliantly set it up as a song not really about a woman, but about another kind of need. A medley of Elvis Costello’s “Almost Blue” (a great song making the rounds right now) and “The Thrill Is Gone” (Roy Hawkins, Rick Darnell) swung darkly and worked wonderfully.
Rockwell’s original songs hold their own in this rich, heady atmosphere. The revelation of the show for me was “Lane Closed…Do Not Follow” (Bernard Herrmann, Rockwell, Versace) lifted from the theme from Taxi Driver and turned into a haunting variation on “Detour Ahead.” Happily, she reprised “Libertango” which paired her words with Astor Piazzolla’s infectious melody. “Voodoo Song” (Bill Brendle, Rockwell) was practically a duet for drums and voice, and the insinuating, hypnotic drum solo by Fischler sounded vaguely familiar to me. After the song, Rockwell explained that she had incorporated the drums from the soundtrack of Val Lewton’s classic horror film I Walked With a Zombie; she obviously has gone deep in her investigation of noir and its rhythms.
The show closed with a simple, touching version of the standard, “I Wish You Love” (Léo Chauliac, Charles Trenet, Albert Askew Beach), which provided a bit of warmth and romance after the uneasy mysterious world in which we had spent the last hour. This is a show with an attitude, intelligence, sensuality, heart and great music. It will be returning early next year. Put on your trenchcoat and travel the foggy, dimly lit streets to get to “Autumn Noir” wherever its next incarnation may appear.
Autumn Noir: Echoes of Jazz
Cafe Noctambulo at Pangea – September 28
About the Author
Gerry Geddes has conceived and directed a number of musical revues—including the Bistro- and MAC Award-winning "Monday in the Dark with George" and "Put On Your Saturday Suit-Words & Music by Jimmy Webb"—and directed many cabaret artists, including André De Shields, Helen Baldassare, Darius de Haas, and drag artist Julia Van Cartier. He directs "The David Drumgold Variety Show," currently in residence at Manhattan Movement & Arts Center, and has produced a number of recordings, including two Bistro-winning CDs. He’s taught vocal performance at The New School, NYU, and London’s Goldsmith’s College and continues to conduct private workshops and master classes. As a writer and critic, he has covered New York’s performing arts scene for over 40 years in both local and national publications; his lyrics have been sung by several cabaret and recording artists. Gerry is an artist in residence at Pangea, and a regular contributor to the podcast “Troubadours & Raconteurs.” He just completed a memoir of his life in NYC called “Didn’t I Ever Tell You This?”