Sep. 25-Oct. 1, 2008


Blue Note, 25-28

When the British pop-jazz singer Cleo Laine made her American debut in 1972, everything about her caught the eye or ear. Then 45, she was exotically beautiful and as animated as a Muppet. Her earthy contralto could leap octaves, or tootle in unison with the reed playing of John Dankworth, her husband and arranger. Dankworth had long ago established himself as England’s father of modern jazz, while Laine could sing almost anything. She performed his jazzy settings of Shakespeare, growled Bessie Smith’s “Gimme a Pigfoot and a Bottle of Bear,” wailed a high-flying version of “Aquarius,” gave definitive readings of Sondheim. Arty film buffs recall one of her quirkier credits: In 1963 her voice became a spooky motif in
The Servant, Harold Pinter’s homoerotic psychodrama. Dankworth scored that and dozens of other British features, while leading a boundary-pushing big band.

Last year Laine and Dankworth – who answer these days to “Dame” and “Sir” – turned eighty. Although they’re scarcely less busy than ever, their upcoming four-night stand at the Blue Note is their first engagement here in four years. The couple’s recent English TV appearances offer good news: Dankworth’s alto and clarinet sound as gossamer as ever, while Laine’s voice remains a wonder of agility and plummy richness. After 57 years of dual music-making (50 of marriage), the Dankworths can anticipate each other’s every move; they make a stage seem as comfortable as their living room.