Say Hello (and Surrender) to Jack Donahue
Jack Donahue started in musical theater, then came cabaret, where he’s become a staple in clubs nationwide. This week the Worcester native comes back to home turf with a Harvard Square appearance. EDGE caught up with Jack about the gig & his career.
If one had to describe singer Jack Donahue in one word right now, it would be "self-possessed." Donahue spent the majority of his early career in musical theater, appearing in regional theater productions of "She Loves Me," "Cabaret" and a Williamstown Theatre Festival production of "Closer Than Ever," before landing the 1999 touring production of the Off-Broadway production of "Floyd Collins," where Donahue began a lifelong friendship with that musical’s composer/lyricist Adam Guettel.
During this early time, Donahue began experimenting with singing solo, launching his one-man show, "My Foolish Heart," on the QEII and he found his calling. Since then, he has made four solo vocal recordings, and appears regularly at jazz and cabaret clubs in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Florida and Los Angeles. A fixture at the Blue Note and the Metropolitan Room in Manhattan, he has also played the Rainbow Room, The Oak Room in the Algonquin Hotel, and most recently Feinstein’s.
Made his mark
He has won the MAC (Manhattan Association of Cabarets and Clubs) Award for "Best Male Jazz Vocalist" two years running in 2008 and 2009. A Worcester native living part-time in both Manhattan and in Boston’s South End, Donahue will be making his annual appearance at the Regattabar on Friday, Nov. 16.
Initially, Donahue did what was popular for solo vocalists to do at the time, especially those with a theater background, which was to venture into the cabaret world, where lyric interpretation and emotional commitment take precedence over vocal pyrotechnics. He made his mark and received numerous accolades, such as this from Wayman Wong of the New York Daily News, "Donahue is one of the most entertaining and engaging young singers around. He’s got good looks and a beautiful voice, (and) a genuine point of view."
One of Rex Reed’s earliest reviews in the New York Observer proclaimed, "Handsome and personable, with his musical pores wide open, Mr. Donahue is going places fast." But Donahue felt restricted in the cabaret world, and began working with jazz musicians, such as jazz pianist/vocalist Peter Eldridge of the New York Voices, jazz pianist Randy Ingram, and renowned jazz pianist/arranger, Fred Hersch, which allowed him to grow in a more free form way.
Once again, he made a strong impression, prompting Rex Reed to boast again, this time of Donahue’s third recording, clearly in the jazz vein, "Surrender to Jack Donahue-he will haunt you.... fresh and captivating...astoundingly imaginative. I have played (’A Small Blue Thing’) about 20 times in a row and I am haunted by what I’m hearing."
And Meredith Goldstein of the Boston Globe announced, "He’s got it covered. Say hello to Jack Donahue.... Fresh-faced jazz newcomer." WICN: NEW England’s Jazz Station placed him in the Top 10 Pick of 2005, "Wonderful. A beautiful voice and wonderful delivery. So refreshing to hear a great male vocalist. Donahue is a rare breed."
And at the moment, this rare breed of a singer is a man on a mission and he knows what he wants. After a decade of constant creative experimentation, Donahue continues to experiment, this time coming full circle back to the lyrics. Edge caught up with Donahue as he was preparing to head to a sound check for a performance at the Metropolitan Room.
Who’s Tom Toce?
EDGE: Tell me about Broadway Ballyhoo at Feinstein’s, where you were a guest performer this past July.
Jack Donahue: [Producers and theater/cabaret critics] Scott and Barbara Siegel have this ongoing series called the Broadway Ballyhoo at Feinstein’s. Once a week on a Thursday, they have three Broadway singers come in and do a third of the full set, and you get to see three distinctly different performers, and because I did theater for so many years, I get to do these nights. I love being in their midst, and I see such a major contrast between where I used to be and where I am now.
My music and my sound is slowly dialed in a different direction. I am playing Feinstein’s, a small room, similar to the rooms I play with 150 or so seats, and the other selected performers appear to be singing to the 45th row in the balcony. You have to have some wherewithal in the room. You aren’t on Broadway, you are in a nightclub. Even though I have a large personality and I love to use my humor, my music has a way of playing in a snug cozy place. So when I do a Feinstein’s, or Birdland or Regattabar, I can keep my big personality in check with a wink, and dig into the stuff that gets me interested. I have always had a quieter and more introspective take on tunes.
EDGE: Who is Tom Toce, and how did this tribute to his lyrics come about at the Metropolitan Room that you are performing in today?
Jack Donahue: Tom Toce, we are talking about a brain! Two-time Jeopardy champion, majored in geophysics at Yale, and is an actuary. My two co-performers, Marisa Muldaur and Carole Bufford are both terrific dynamic performers, and I am really pleased to be a part of it. I like that I’m the only guy. The two women have different colors from brassy to emotional. Presenting [Toce’s] material is a blast. It is also very rangy, in that he works with 13 different composers. There’s a Latin influence, a power ballad, and arc pop song, and it goes on. It challenges the listener as well as the singer.
A little bit of theater
EDGE: Speaking of challenges, you mentioned you are coming around to a more lyric based storytelling type of singing again. What brought this on?
Jack Donahue: For me, it has always been that the heart of the lyric has to be as rich as the heart of the melody. And if there is a little bit of theater to what I am singing, that is more dynamic. For instance, I think ’Where or When?’ is a terrific song, and fun to sing as a background tune. But when you sing it as a solo, it doesn’t have as much guts as ’I Get Along Without You Very Well,’ or ’Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most,’ or the ’Ballad of the Sad Young Men.’
It is fun to be able to sing the way I want to sing, with the musicians I love to play with, and sing in a cabaret club, or a jazz club. Ten years ago I was worried about labels. Now I am not interested in labels. I don’t care if I sing pop, jazz, cabaret. I think to myself: do what you do best and love, and let everyone else throw labels at it.
EDGE: What will your show at Rbar be like? Material from the past? New material?
Jack Donahue: Hurricane Sandy really fucked up a lot of people’s lives in NYC but she gave me a lovely gift, which was to introduce me to a guitar player I’ve always wanted to play with, who had previously moved back to Norway, but recently returned to NY, Bjorn Solli.
My piano player Randy [Ingram] will be on tour during my Regattabar gig, so I ended up getting Bjorn to play for me, and we fit together like a Lego. We pick a key, a tempo and just go. In a few months, he goes back to Norway, but he happens to love accompanying singers and it is a joy for him and you can tell.
We are going to explore some things from the past: ’Only a Dream,’ from [my first CD] ’Lighthouse’ (Mary Chapin Carpenter), Chet Baker’s ’Unsung Swansong.’ Then I think I’m just keeping it in a place where Bjorn can just settle into a groove.
I always thought my voice sat in the same place as a piano, and I’ve always wanted to see how my voice mixed with guitar. I’ve sung with guitar in the past, so it must be the guitarist. It is just comfortable with Bjorn. I also feel comfortable being back in Massachusetts anyway.
EDGE: Who will you be performing with at the Regattabar?
Jack Donahue: In addition to Bjorn, there will be Dave Brophy on drums, and Pete Brendler on bass
There will be one special guest, Andy Lantz, joining me for a standard at the piano.
EDGE: Any new projects in the wings?
Jack Donahue: ’Hopelessly In Love, Lyrics of Tom Tose ’ will continue on into December. In late winter into spring, I’m working on something called ’Jack Sings Jane, the Music of Jane Olivor.’
Also ’Manilow and Mercer: Marvelous’ exploring all the songs with lyrics by Mercer that Mercer’s widow gave to Barry Manilow. Lastly, I’m working on something called ’Get Chet, Ready, Go, the Music of Chet Baker.’
The weekend before the hurricane, I did some sets at a restaurant on the Upper East Side. It was like old school, I sat down in a chair with a guitar player, and then we’d rattle off another tune in a new key. Shelly Markham, who’d just finished playing a gig with Andrea Marcovicci down the street, dropped by and sat down at the piano and we did ’Smile’ (Chaplin). Two years after I moved here, I was inside a studio for weeks recording ’Lighthouse,’ and I completely missed autumn that year. And all these years later, to enjoy the fall of the leaves, the sunset, and to be able to work on music constantly, it is just a happy, happy time.
Jack Donahue will perform on Friday, Nov. 16, 7:30pm at the Regattabar at the Charles Hotel, 1 Bennett Street, Cambridge, MA 02138. Tickets: $20. For reservations, call 617.395.7757, or visit: http://www.getshowtix.com/regattabar/moreinfo.cgi?id=2753.
Watch this clip of Jack Donahue performing at Birdland in NYC: