A TOUCH OF SPRING IN WINTER Rosemary Clooney's Back in Town

(Newsday 2-4-94)

By Gene Seymour. STAFF WRITER

ROSEMARY CLOONEY. If it's February, then Rosie must be back in town. Backed by the cream of New York's session swingers, the singer kicks off her annual month-long engagement Tuesday night at Rainbow and Stars at Rockefeller Plaza.

ROSEMARY Clooney's annual midwinter migration from her West Coast home base to Rainbow and Stars may be the only reason to stick around New York during February. For six years, she's been bringing the warmth of her voice and wit as a healing aid to these bleak, cold Manhattan wilds. At Tuesday's star-studded opening night of her engagement (which runs through Feb. 26), it was clear that Clooney needed New York this year as badly as New York needed her. She made a brief, jocular reference to the Jan. 17 quake, the epicenter of which wasn't far from her Sherman Oaks home.

Even through the offhand humor, you could sense the memory of those awful minutes gave her the kind of jitters that only added to her customary opening-night tremors. But Clooney, whose jaunty resilience has served her well as both artistic trademark and life-support system, maneuvered through her first set with casual grace.

It helped that she was supported by a glittering array of New York's finest accompianists, chiefly tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton - arguably the most resourceful melodist on his instrument now that Stan Getz is gone. Hamilton and coronetist Warren Vache were joined by drummer Joe Cocuzzo, bassist Jay Leonhart, guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli and pianist John Oddo, who, as Clooney's musical director, has been as responsible as anyone for his boss becoming, in her mid-60s, an established force as a jazz vocalist.

You don't lose yourself in Clooney's voice so much as let it bathe you like a warm shower. Even though she was taking noticably heavy breaths throughout, her intonation had such clarity and force that each word seemed illuminated by small bursts of light. This was especially apparent on her medley of Van Heusen-Burke standards: "But Beautiful," "Moonlight Becomes You" and "Like Someone in Love." She easily drew added pungency and insight from the familiar lyrics.

Her command of varied pop-and-swing tempos is so masterly that she could handle a sultry-funky arrangement of Ellington's "I Aint Got Nothin' but the Blues" as seamlessly as she evoked the gin-and-bitters humor of Dave Frishburg's "Let's Eat Home." She even made "Come on-a My House," her hoary novelty hit, seem like a genuine swing classic - as long as you didn't think too much of the words.

She also sang Paul Simon's "Still Crazy After All These Years," one of the tunes on her new album, "Still on the Road" (Concord Jazz). On first glance, such eclectic contents as "On the Road Again" and "Road to Morocco" (a tribute to old buddy Bing Crosby with trumpeter-funny guy Jack Sheldon providing backup) makes you think she's in over her head.

Still, the album grows on you - even when the material isn't always worthy of her. But nothing beats seeing her live. Don't deny yourself the pleasure.

Copyright 1994, Newsday Inc.