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Ronny Whyte: Whyte Witchcraft: Songs of Cy Coleman (Audiophile)

Review of album-length tribute to the musical-theater composer and performer

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Cover of Ronny Whyte album Whyte Witchcraft: Songs of Cy Coleman
Cover of Ronny Whyte album Whyte Witchcraft: Songs of Cy Coleman

Cy Coleman (1929-2004), the jazz pianist turned theater composer, is best remembered for his string of golden Broadway scores: Little Me, Wildcat, Sweet Charity, Seesaw, I Love My Wife. But to cabaret-goers of the 1950s, Coleman was a nightclub mainstay whose songs formed a smart soundtrack to big-city life. His music, with its syncopated, conversational bounce, has a distinctly New York pulse; the lyrics of his key collaborators Joseph McCarthy, Jr., Carolyn Leigh, and Dorothy Fields, are dazzlingly nimble and worldly wise. In “You Fascinate Me So,” Leigh’s words have a swing all their own: “I feel like Christopher Columbus when I’m near enough to contemplate/The sweet geography descending from your eyebrow to your toe.”

It’s a lost language of songwriting, and most of its great interpreters—Blossom Dearie, Sylvia Syms, Mabel Mercer, Bobby Short—are gone. But their urbanity and musicianship live on in Ronny Whyte, a 60-year follower in a grand tradition of New York singer/pianists. Suave but eternally boyish, with jazz chops and a breezy air, Whyte was Coleman’s friend; the composer gave him copies of many of his songs. From these Whyte has assembled his latest album, which focuses mainly on Coleman’s partnership with Leigh.

Thousands of nights in saloons haven’t dulled the satin sheen of Whyte’s voice. On half the tracks, Cecilia Coleman (no relation), the Los Angeles-based bandleader and pianist, backs Whyte with a 16-piece orchestra that’s strong on instrumental color but never competitive. Elsewhere Whyte performs in a trio that includes accordionist Eddie Monteiro. Singing the best of early Cy—“Why Try to Change Me Now?,” “Witchcraft,” “I Walk a Little Faster,” “The Rules of the Road”—Whyte captures the wit and the lilt in every phrase.

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James Gavin

James Gavin is the author of Deep in a Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker, Stormy Weather: The Life of Lena Horne, and Intimate Nights: The Golden Age of Cabaret. He is a regular contributor to JazzTimes.