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Madeline Eastman: The Speed of Life

Sometimes you have to hit me in the head with a brick before I notice the obvious, which is probably why it never dawned on me that San Francisco’s Mad-Kat records was euphemistically named for cofounders Madeline Eastman and Kitty Margolis. In honor of the label’s 15th anniversary, both are back on store shelves with typically inspired discs.

At a time when all sorts of aging rockers are diving into the Great American Songbook, trying (with generally little luck or skill) to embrace some inner Ella or Eckstine, Eastman is taking the opposite tack infusing “Alone Together,” “Do I Hear a Waltz?,” “There’s a Small Hotel” and the nine other standards that fill The Speed of Life with an appealing jazz-rock sensibility. Don’t get me wrong; Eastman and her sidemen-pianist Randy Porter, bassist Rufus Reid, drummer Akira Tana, trumpeter Mike Olmos and percussionist Michael Spiro-boast estimable jazz chops. Still, it’s evident that Eastman has as keen an appreciation for, say, Billie Holiday (whom she echoes ever so subtly on “We Kiss in a Shadow”) as for gutsy rock era frontwomen like Grace Slick and Stevie Nicks and softer singer-songwriters like Carole King and Phoebe Snow.

Margolis, an equally potent blend of class, integrity and chutzpah, suggests Keely Smith with an Eydie Gorme chaser (stirred, for good measure, with Sarah Vaughan-worthy scatting). Coming full-circle with the self-produced Heart and Soul: Live in San Francisco (her 1989 Mad-Kat debut disc was recorded live at San Francisco’s celebrated Jazz Workshop), Margolis delights the SRO audience at North Beach’s On Broadway Theater with 75 minutes of thrilling showmanship. Imagine Doris Day’s flowery “Secret Love” pared to its natural beauty, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s syrupy “My Favorite Things” injected with grown-up vivacity (and adorned with a scorching Michael Bluestein piano solo) or a hymnlike “Spring Will Be a Little Late This Year” seeped in chilled desperation and you get a vague idea of her pliant magnetism. About three quarters of the way through her set, Margolis serves up Tommy Wolf’s “I’m Always Drunk in San Francisco.” Considering the magnificence of Carmen McRae’s 1968 version (from Portrait of Carmen), it’s a risky choice. But Margolis, as adept at working a room as the mighty McRae, manages to make it distinctly her own, keeping the crowd, much like the sleepin’ bee she sings of earlier in the evening, firmly but comfortably in the palm of her hand.

Originally Published