Review: Marlene VerPlanck

Marlene VerPlanck
(Ronnie Scott’s, March 6th 2011)

Sometimes just one phrase of a song can open the window onto a singer’s whole lifetime of musicality, stagecraft and accumulated wisdom.

Marlene Verplanck has certainly had a full lifetime in music. In her early twenties she was already recording on the Savoy label with Hank Jones. She had spells with Charlie Spivak’s band and with the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra, where she met her husband, the trombonist-arranger Billy VerPlanck. In the ensuing decades she was seldom out of a recording studio, and America got to know her voice from jingles for Michelob beers and Campbell’s Soups.

But that one phrase which is going to stay with me is from Lerner and Loewe’s “The Heather on the Hill” from 1954.

After the words “There may be other days as rich and rare/There may be other springs as full and fair/ But they won’t be the same–they’ll come and go”…

..comes the simple four-word statement: “For this I know.”

VerPlanck, as the music dictates, leaves a gap before the words “I know.” But that caesura allows her to come back with a sense of certainty, affirmation and finality which perhaps no other singer can match. Yes, one has to agree: she knows.

Marlene Verplanck also knows that every word is going to be heard: she has astonishingly clear diction. Every syllable comes across with the limpidity of a mountain stream. The voice, unsurprisingly, does show the occasional sign of strain. She may look years – no, decades – younger, but she is in fact now in her mid seventies. However, once the listener latches on to those triumphant moments when the head goes back, or when the hand (or fist) is slightly raised, and hears words sung unforgettably with life-affirmation and indomitable optimism, then what Verplanck does which is special and unique becomes obvious.

Ira Gershwin’s lyrics to “There’s No Holding Me” from 1946 require the vocalist to walk credibly on air, and not just to find rainbows, but also to climb them. With VerPlanck you don’t just hear, you can believe every word.

“I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” was performed in an attractive but intricate arrangement by Billy Verplanck. Here the common purpose of singer and trio gave form and shape to the song. It started pianissimo, and then just grew steadily and inexorably in volume and in intensity. From where I sat Bobby Worth was out of view, so it was completely impossible to tell from the mere sound at what point in the ascent he made the transition from brushes to sticks – it just suddenly seemed to have happened, by magic. Pianist John Pearce was digging progressively deeper and deeper into the keys and eliciting more and bigger sound.

Pearce was also to the fore in a homage by Verplanck to the late great George Shearing, “All in Fun,” which Verplanck recorded with Shearing.

Bassist Paul Morgan shared the spotlight in one moment of really deep emotion. It went unmentioned at the gig, but Billy VerPlanck, Marlene’s husband and inseparable companion of 52 years, died in June 2009 after a battle against lung cancer. (There is a heartfelt tribute to him on her website). Knowing this background, Johnny Mercer’s words to Trav’lin’ Light– when sung with the clarity and purposful musicianship of Marlene VerPlanck – take on an astonishing poignancy:

I’m trav’lin’ light
Because my man has gone
And from now on
I’m trav’lin’ light.

He said goodbye
And took my heart away
So from today
I’m trav’lin’ light.

No one to see
I’m free as the breeze
No one but me
And my memories.

Some lucky night
He may come back again
But until then
I’m trav’lin’ light.

These words, this singer need to be heard.

Marlene Verplanck is currently on a UK tour with several dates- DETAILS HERE – the last of which is a return to London to the Pheasantry in Kings Road SW3 on March 27th. Bookings at pizzaexpresslive.co.uk

Marlene Verplanck’s most recent CD is One Dream At A Time (Audiophile ACD 340)

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1 reply »

  1. I just learned about Marlene a year or so ago, and I love all her albums! She is a great singer and has some great songs, many of which I had no idea.I even have her latest and love it too. Wish I could see her in person, or at least on a DVD! And it's so great that the new cd had arrangements by Billy and even a couple of his songs. Couldn't be better!

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