Once upon a time, you couldn’t enter a Manhattan hotel lobby without happening upon a resident singer-pianist who knew every tune in the Great American Songbook. Earlier this year, another nail was driven into that dying tradition’s coffin when, after 14 years of singing and playing (on Cole Porter’s piano, no less) at the Waldorf-Astoria, Daryl Sherman was given her walking papers. Fortunately, the ever-resourceful Sherman was already prepared for a new chapter in her rich musical career.
A couple of months prior to her ousting from the Waldorf, she’d hiked to New Orleans, hired a studio, assembled some top-notch local players—including guitarist James Chirillo, bassist Al Menard and saxophonist/clarinetist Tom Fischer—and recorded a post-Katrina tribute to the Big Easy that easily ranks among the best of her many, many albums. Sounding, as always, like Blossom Dearie injected with a sizable dose of Mildred Bailey’s breezy sophistication, Sherman combines familiar anthems (“Way Down Yonder in New Orleans,” refreshingly taken at a dreamy pace; Jerry Jeff Walker’s timeless “Mr. Bojangles”; Gus Kahn’s vibrant “N’Oleans”) with such less familiar, but no less enticing, fare as Rhodes Spedale’s jaunty “S’Mardi Gras,” Seger Ellis’ tender “I Don’t Want to Miss Mississippi” and Sherman’s own “Wendell’s Cat,” the heartbreaking tale of an elderly man forced to abandon his beloved pet in the midst of the storm.
Neither Harold Arlen’s “Ill Wind” nor Johnny Mercer’s “Moon River” were written about New Orleans, but both—the former with its steely resolve to move past even the most challenging difficulties, the latter with its wistful reminiscence of lost innocence—fit beautifully. Equally apt is Dave Frishberg’s “Eloise,” which delicately but resolutely insists that beauty, even if physically destroyed, endures unmarred in the mind’s eye of the beholder.