Not to slight any of the others on Lincoln Center's American Songbook series schedule, but Valerie Simpson’s performance at Jazz at Lincoln Center's Allen Room Thursday night had to be a high point of the current season—or any of the preceding ones.
For few song catalogs are as rich as that of Simpson and late husband Nick Ashford’s, and Simpson saw an opportunity here to dig deep into the Ashford & Simpson songbook and went deeper.
Some eight months after a tentative but triumphant return to the New York concert stage opening for The Whispers at The Beacon, Simpson was simply magnificent in rendering the great Ashford & Simpson hits, rarely performed A&S gems, and a couple tunes from Simpson’s Ashford & Simpson-penned and produced solo album Dinosaurs Are Coming Back Again.
But some of the songs have taken on a different meaning now that she’s alone, Simpson said, leading into “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing,” her meaning here “not necessarily what we intended when we first wrote them.”
This was clear in her slow piano opening to the now heartbreaking lyric “I got your picture hangin' on the wall/It can't see or come to me when I call your name/I realize it's just a picture in a frame.”
Yet Simpson's belief that her husband had left her prepared was borne out when she brought out the incomparable Ron Grant, who also did the Ashford legacy proud in singing his part on “You’re All I Need To Get By”—like the preceding Ashford-Simpson classic, originally a Motown hit for Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell.
Grant stayed on for the lesser known A&S gem “Still Such A Thing” (Nick’s opening part was so Nick: “I can’t convince the world that it’s crumbling, falling apart/And I can’t tell you what to think or what's in your heart/I don’t know why I still believe/There is still such a thing, still people dream of love.")
Other high points included daughter Asia Ashford’s poised duet with her mom on “Stay Free” (a rare A&S song, Simpson noted, about people who weren’t yet romantically connected), especially satisfying to longtime A&S fans who remember Asia's first stage appearance at Radio City Music Hall when she was two-years-old. Longtime backup singer Clayton Bryant showed how he has come into his own by taking Nick’s role in the gritty “Street Corner” theme from Ashford & Simpson’s ambitious urban opera Street Opera.
The rest of Simpson’s band—pianist/conductor Pete Cannarozzi, keyboardist/vocalist Valerie Ghent, guitarist Sherrod Barnes, bassist Eluriel “Tinker” Barfield, drummer Bernard “Pocket” Davis and new saxophonist Todd Schefflin were uniformly outstanding. The finale was perfect, with Grant, Eddie Sands and John Stanley coming out to assist Simpson in the unifying “Reach Out And Touch (Somebody’s Hand).”
But really, it was all Val. She noted how “I’m Every Woman,” originally a hit for Chaka Khan, “conjures a lot of memories” in light of the one-year anniversary of Whitney Houston’s passing—Houston also having had a big hit with it.
And she went further back to the future with the titletrack of Dinosaurs Are Coming Back Again.
“People ask why dinosaurs are coming back,” she said. “Well, you see there is just that much child left in me to believe in fairy tales--real fairy tales.”
You have to take that child that is still in you, Simpson continued, take the risk to do something you haven’t done.
“Reach back for that thing in the back of your mind and bring it in front right now!” she commanded. “Don’t worry about what anybody else says, the opportunity is yours--the chance for a Part Two. Everybody should have a Part Two!”
Dinosaurs, she concluded, were in fact coming back, “one-by-one, two-by-two.”
“Can’t you see them come?” she said.
Perhaps it was her power of suggestion, but there seemed to be a lot of dinosaurs on stage and in the audience who were snorting for a second chance.
[The Examiner has written liner notes to Ashford & Simpson CDs and DVDs.]
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