Every hip fan's favorite jazz singer from the late 1950s and well into the 1960s, Annie Ross (of Lambert, Hendricks & Ross) plays jazz singer Tess Trainer in Robert Altman's film, Short Cuts, which opened the Mill Valley Film Festival last week.
On Tuesday (and repeating Wednesday) Ross is performing with her "Short Cuts" quintet at Sweetwater in Mill Valley, a tie-in with the festival.
Her material is drawn primarily from the film's Hal Willner-produced soundtrack, which includes "Punishing Kiss," an Elvis Costello number, in part; Costello on Tuesday joined in with Ross in singing it — not great music, but it was fun to have these two in duet on stage.
Earlier, Costello sang a new song, solo, titled "It's Still Too Soon to Know" — a beautiful sentimental ballad.
As for Ross — well, unlike anyone else, she's aged since the '60s. She's not the bouncy, swinging, clear-voiced ad-libbing vocalese star she once was.
At Sweetwater she has a superb accompanying quintet (the "Short Cuts") which includes NRBQ pianist Terry Adams, trombonist Bruce Fowler, vibraharpist Joe Locke, bassist Greg Cohen and drummer Bobby Previte.
Adams' jazz-soul-rock 'n' roll keyboard style gives Ross funky support and Fowler proves to be one of the better trombonists I've heard. Would that Ross's tones were so clear, her pitch so true, her improvised (scat) choruses so well crafted.
Ross was faced with two problems — first, she has not appeared regularly as a club act in recent years (nor with this band) and, secondly, she had to include most of her songs from the Short Cuts soundtrack.
She began with "Bye, Bye Blackbird," an explosive but peculiar, dynamically inconsistent rendition. Following, abruptly, was "To Hell With Love," written by Doc Pomus and Dr. John/Mac Rebennack for the film score — Ross's baritone-pitch whiskey voice is perfect for such a saloon-moan.
U2's Bono and The Edge "composed" "Conversation on a Bar Stool," which may be effective in the film but was grim in person, lacking in melody or defined pitch.
"Blue," a Jon Hendricks composition (with Gildo Mahones, his one-time pianist) is a slow, 8-beat moaner which Ross's voice just couldn't sustain, although Adams plays a remarkable, off-the-wall piano solo midway.
Why Ross did "Sweet Marijuana" from 1934 (which I know as "Sweet Lotus Blossom") is beyond me — it didn't fit well. And, worse, it followed World War II's "One Meat Ball," a total disaster.
Another Pomus-Rebennack soundtrack number, "Full Moon" is tough — working with the band for a few weeks might make it a beauty; it seems just right for her.
Withal, just seeing and hearing Ross in such intimate circumstances is a treat. She's got a lot of stage smarts working for her and if her voice isn't quite up to par, some of the old style and class are still there.
Costello will not be joining the show on Wednesday.