It’s not often that a singer receives a standing ovation in the Barbican Hall before they have even sung a note. But when that singer happens to be Dame Cleo Laine, an octogenarian and still the undisputed First Lady of Jazz, the audience’s reaction to seeing her in all her glory was quite understandable.
Dame Cleo may be 83, but the strength of her voice, not to mention the sparkle in her eye, have in no way diminished with time. She is not unknown for having an offbeat sense of humour, but on this occasion it seemed wryer and drier than usual. After praising her family for becoming such great musicians she said, “It’s just as well because if they hadn’t I’d have boxed their ears!” As she then so eloquently put it, “You get to a certain age and you don’t care what the blazes you say!”
All the banter was, of course, part of the act, and though she made a few mistakes in her compering, such as forgetting the running order, she carried these off with such panache that they only added to the fun. Particularly memorable was an introduction that dragged on through confusion, leading her to chip in with “my husband would be saying “for God’s sake!”"
But as soon as she opened her mouth to sing she was nigh on perfect. Her voice sounds more straight forward perhaps than in yesteryear, there being a few less textures and subtleties in it, but her massive vocal range has hardly diminished at all. The second line of her opening All The World’s A Stage saw her rise into the higher octave to produce the sound she has made her trademark, while the range of effects she produced in Hallelujah was incredible. She described the song as “quite a puff” but, if she found it so, her embellishments to the final word did not give it away in the slightest.
Dame Cleo paid frequent tribute to her husband, the late great Sir John Dankworth, and was joined on stage by three other family members. In the first half, daughter Jacqui Dankworth sang several Charlie Wood songs and, with a swing in her hips, performed right at the top of her game. Her voice was strong, vibrant and frequently smoky, and she transferred to her upper register with beauty and ease. Bassist son Alec Dankworth also gave a storming performance of Jack the Bear with some thunderously vibrant playing.
Alec’s daughter Emily Dankworth ensured that three generations of the family were represented. Her performance of the Cuban love song, Veinte Anos, was full of Spanish seduction, her voice being sensitive and much lighter than Dame Cleo’s or Jacqui’s. At times longer phrases felt a little underpowered, but she will undoubtedly develop further and her diction was exemplary. As all of them sang Kiss Me My Darling we saw three generations in action, with the sweet voiced Emily, the fully fledged Jacqui and the ‘old pro’ Dame Cleo complementing each other well.
In absolute terms, it was Jacqui who we heard at her very best, but just as remarkable was the extent to which Dame Cleo showed she has still got it, her final songs constituting performances to treasure. As she sang the iconic He Was Beautiful there wasn’t a dry eye in the house, while the vocally complex T’ain’t What You Do (It’s the Way That You Do It) was sung as only she knows how. At 83, Dame Cleo Laine is performing 95% as well as she ever has, and, at this rate, it’s worth a wager that at 95 she’ll still be performing at 83%.