While the more cynical among us (like yours truly) might accuse singer/songwriter Susan Werner of "changing" her style to appeal to the jazz-is-hip-now crowd, the cabaret set or the (dwindling) retro swing scene well, shucks, that’s just wrong. While Ms. Werner was in high school and college, she’d played and sung jazz before moving into the folk/singer-songwriter milieu in which she established herself. On her latest album I Can’t Be New (Koch), she renews the jazz/torch song side of her musical personality: she wrote and performs a batch of tasty originals in the manner of the Great American Songbook, that compendium of classy/classic songcraft as written by the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Hoagy Carmichael, etc. The best thing about these songs aside from their high level of craft and quality - is they never come across as "too-too," retro or awkward they serve to enrich the Great Amer. Songbook tradition instead of merely mimicking it. She pays the genre the BEST kind of tribute: with affection, more than just a dash of irreverence (but not coming across as "too" clever) and never treats it like a museum piece or a hothouse orchid.
Which brings us to her show at the fine Chicago club Schuba’s, best known for hosting rock music of various stripes, but also occasionally jazz (a tremendous Trevor Watts show last year). The place was packed, but not uncomfortably so, and the live sound was superb, as per usual. Ms. Werner’s ensemble was a mobile, intelligent unit, consisting of herself on acoustic guitar and piano and an acoustic bassist (forgive me, but I think his name was Mark or Max Cohen). The majority of tonight’s songs were from New, but she did play a couple of older, folkier songs from her back catalog. Highlights included "Let’s Regret This In Advance," an playfully urbane yet respectful send-up of "disastrous affair" story-songs; "Philanthropy," a vivacious, top-o’-the-world-ma!/"I’ve Got The World On A String"-type number; and a gem not on the new album: a tribute to her "new" hometown of Chicago, an answer of sorts to those "New York, NY"/I’ll Take Manhattan" paeans to the Big Apple. (Best line: "we’ve got Studs Turkel/and the Weiner’s Circle.") Throughout the 10PM set, Werner’s singing was a joy to behold: she sings in a strong (but never overbearing), clear, well-enunciated voice that displayed influences of Mose Allison (punchy, witty, blues-tinged phrasing), Shirley Horn, Bonnie Raitt (range), Carole King (warmth, compassion) and she even did a dandy impression of Louis Armstrong on one tune her delivery was a unique mixture of opening-night focus and after-hours relaxedness, and she maintains a folk singer’s directness (whereas some jazz singers come off like they’re above their material or the song is just a springboard for them to Do Their Thing). What’s more, Werner was gracious to that set’s most appreciative crowd. File this under "good time had by all," and if you think "they don’t write songs like the used to" (i.e., before the onslaught of rock & roll), hear I Can’t Be New a.s.a.p. (It makes a nice bookend with Elvis Costello’s latest platter North.)