By Jonathan Schwartz
The audience at the Algonquin Hotel's Oak Room, one of New York's premier cabarets, falls to silence when Maude Maggart starts to sing from the Great American Songbook. She becomes the words and respects the melody to the note. Richard Rodgers, Jerome Kern, Jimmy Van Heusen, and many of the other iconic composers who created these melodies would be proud. She is, note for note, a faithful messenger of the great stuff.
Maggart's real name is Amber, but she chose Maude for the alliteration and because it's a name that evokes the era in which many of the songs she sings were written. At 32, she still looks like a girl. But the woman emerges on stage when she sings and, to a degree, when she speaks. For Maude Maggart, the songs are life itself, the reason for being alive, for falling in love, for risking everything with a man who has touched her heart.
Believe me, she has done her homework. She has learned by research and discipline and by channeling the wisdom of her guides, singers Andrea Marcovicci and Michael Feinstein.
Maggart has recorded four wonderful albums, but she is someone you must see perform in person. Her physical beauty, her brave presence, looking so vulnerable in front of the audience, is not captured on CDs. Her ethereal and frequently agonizing vibrato can be received by some as irritating on a disk, but for me the beauty of her singing overcomes the difficulties.
The songs she chooses are crafted with intelligence and talent. No false rhymes, like home and alone. Instead: "You are the promised kiss of springtime, that makes the lonely winter seem long/You are the breathless hush of evening, that trembles on the brink of a lovely song." That, by Oscar Hammerstein for a melody by Jerome Kern, is sung on the new Live album, which is drawn from performances at the Oak Room and the Gardenia, a cabaret venue in West Hollywood.
You should know something else about Maggart: Her sister, three years younger, is Fiona Apple, a contemporary singer/songwriter whose metaphor-filled songs have reached a larger audience than Maggart's. "She is my closest friend," Maude told me. "She is my truest confidante."
The truest confidante, in her own songs, speaks clearly, if often startlingly, of her sexual freedom. Maude embraces the same attitude but acknowledges that the work in the American Songbook often places women in submissive roles, roles that she rejects. Still, she sings those songs passionately, with abandon, and dresses provocatively to underscore her statement.
Two sisters, venturing forth with entirely different musical aspirations. How unusual and interesting. Amber, as she is called by intimates, will carry her songs all over the world. No nostalgist (despite her stage name), Maggart is a remarkable anomaly, making the standards seem like they were written yesterday. Her audience is widening, pleased to receive this country's great musical gift to the world: the American Songbook.
Contemplate the words: "My funny valentine/Sweet comic valentine/You make me smile with my heart/Your looks are laughable, unphotographable/Yet you're my favorite work of art."
Rodgers. Hart. Maggart.
Can you beat it?
Jonathan Schwartz hosts High Standards, a channel on XM Satellite Radio, as well as weekend shows on WNYC-FM, a New York public radio station.