If you ever worry that it’s too late to do what you want to do, look for inspiration to jazz vocalist Josephine Beavers, who will prove you wrong. Ms. Beavers is a warm, classy, beautiful woman of a certain age, who has both a lively style, and a masterful control of her instrument. In what was both her professional singing debut and her Feinstein’s/54 Below debut, this Chicago native showed that talent has no age limits.
This appearance coincides with the belated release of her debut album, “Prime Time”, which was recorded 25 years ago with a full orchestra under the musical direction of her brilliant arranger, musical director, and pianist, Ed Vodicka, who still guides her today. Mr. Vodicka, also a Chicago native who now divides his time professionally between New York and Los Angeles, is a free lance arranger, musical director and musician, equally at home as an accordionist and organist as he is an outstanding jazz pianist.
Ms. Beavers’ voice has grown a touch softer over the years, but remains smooth and clear, buoyed by a consummately professional style, which has not dimmed with time. I have heard a lot of cabaret performances by older performers. But few have kept their instrument in as good a shape as Ms. Beavers has done over the years.
For this 54 Below show, Mr. Vodicka brought in four outstanding players: Tony Tedesco on drums, Steve LaSpina on bass, Glenn Drewes on trumpet and flugelhorn, and Lou Marini on tenor sax, flute, and clarinet. Together they sounded like twice as big a group, thanks also to Mr. Vodicka’s superb big band style arrangements. That wasn’t always good for Ms. Beavers, however, because the Studio 54 sound man often mixed her too far back, and seemed to be paying more attention to his phone than to the show.
Ms. Beavers’ story is a touching one. She was married for 51 years to McDonald’s executive Bob Beavers before his death in 2014. She regularly sang on an amateur basis, and toured for a couple years as guest vocalist with the McDonalds’ All American High School Jazz Band. But mostly she chose simply to be a good corporate wife, rather than pursue a professional singing career. Only when her husband passed did she decide it was time to step into the spotlight herself.
Considering that she chose to debut professionally in the most competitive town for singers in the world, Ms. Beavers delivered the goods. She focused on a selection of American Songbook classics, including “Change Partners” (I. Berlin), “Night and Day”, “What is this Thing Called Love”, and “In the Still of the Night” (C. Porter), “But Beautiful” (J. Van Heusen), “I’ve Got a Crush on You” and “S’wonderful” (G. & I. Gershwin), “Teach Me Tonight” (S. Cahn), “I’ll Be Seeing You” (I. Kahal), and “Where or When” (Rogers and Hart). Mixed in were a few modern classics, “Lotta Livin’ to Do” (C. Strause, from Bye Bye Birdie), “Cry Me a River” (A. Hamilton), and “In the Still of the Night” (F. Parris). Every song was delivered with the polish and precision of an accomplished performer.
Admittedly, Ms. Beavers still has some things to learn about the art of cabaret. She still needs to bring more of herself to the songs she sings and really channel the emotions of her material. I am so accustomed to seeing musical theater performers doing their cabaret shows here, that something is missing for me when I don’t see the singer living as the character in the song. Ms. Beavers also needs to create somepatter to transition between the songs, and let us know more of her personal story.
But cabaret is a new world for her, and I’m sure she will layer these more intimate elements into her future shows. Either way, I’m happy for her, and for her fans, that she is finally letting her own light shine.