SA’s favorite crooner gets intimate with the Great American Songbook
When Ken Slavin decided to put together his first-ever cabaret show, part of the process involved a quick scan of the Random House dictionary. It was an understandable move. While most of us think we know what cabaret sounds like, we’re not necessarily sure what it is. Even among the cognoscenti, definitions of cabaret largely depend on what part of the 20th century they were born in.
|Ken Slavin hopes to take his cabaret show on the road this year.|
Older music fans might conjure images of Joel Grey camping it up to “Money” or a feather-skirted Josephine Baker scandalizing Paris with the forbidden dance. But these days the cabaret movement represents simple, elegant intimacy: an attempt to render classic pop material in the most interactive possible setting, to create an eyeball-to-eyeball musical conversation with listeners.
That is exactly the kind of experience Slavin had during Christmas of 1997 when he saw the legendary Bobby Short perform at the Café Carlyle in New York. Slavin recalls the thrill of being among the approximately 75 people who shared that evening with Short.
Slavin, 44, lives for that kind of performing experience now, but when he began his professional singing career 16 years ago as a young throwback to the classic pop singers of the pre-rock era, he shied away from such closeness. “I think it was because I wasn’t as assured of myself then,” Slavin says between sets of a KRTU fundraising show at The Venue. “Now I really love it, I like to be able to see people’s reactions and feel like we’re feeding off each other.”
Slavin’s cabaret debut, “Just You, Just Me,” is an ambitious two-act show designed to incorporate every color in this veteran crooner’s palette. Opening with a statement of intent in the form of Anthony Newley’s “Once In A Lifetime” (“because this is a new approach for me”), Slavin will move from theme to theme with a series of vignettes. These vignettes will cover jazz standards, Broadway show tunes, Spanish-language selections, country classics that that have become pop standards, and even a couple of Slavin’s comedic rewrites of familiar songs. To create a properly stark acoustic setting, Slavin will be backed by a bare-bones trio: pianist Morris Nelms, bassist Chuck Moses, and drummer Ed Torres.
Because the show opens on the weekend of this year’s Academy Awards, Slavin also did a bit of research and picked some of the best songs ever to be nominated and fail to win the Oscar. “I’ve always been kind of an old movie song buff, because many of the old movie songs have become jazz standards,” he says. “Some of them I perform already and any jazz artist would, but people don’t necessarily know they’re from movies.”
A Connecticut native who traveled frequently as a child, Slavin settled in San Antonio at the age of 17 when his father retired from the Coast Guard and moved his family here. The family’s San Antonio roots ran deep. Slavin’s grandfather led a Dixieland band in the Alamo City and Slavin’s father had been born and raised here.
A self-described “child of the ’70s,” Slavin appreciated the pop and disco radio hits of his teen years, but his secret passion was the so-called Great American Songbook, the timeless standards crafted by composers such as George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, and Harold Arlen. “It was something I didn’t share with people because I always thought they would think I was square or strange,” Slavin says.
Comedian Margaret Cho has said she gravitated to stand-up at least partly because she saw how much her father loved watching comedians and felt it provided her a way to connect with him. Similarly, Slavin says that music enabled him to communicate with his father, a “gruff military man” who played the saxophone and loved big-band music.
Just you, just me
Fri, Mar 3 thru Sun, Mar 5
Fri, Mar 10 thru Sun, Mar 12
Church Bistro and Theatre
1150 S. Alamo
As a student at St. Mary’s University, Slavin indulged his love of musicals, but never won a singing lead in a college production. At an audition for Carousel, a student director advised him to “stick to speaking parts,” a critique which stung him for years. While he subsequently doubted the quality of his own voice, he couldn’t entirely resist the lure of musical performance. In the mid-’80s, he entered lip-synch contests at the now-debunct Studebakers club at Crossroads Mall. He says he won the $100 first prize six times, miming to Bobby Darin records such as “Mack The Knife.”
These days, “Mack The Knife” is Slavin’s undisputed showstopper. The link with Darin is a natural one. In his time, Darin was a throwback to an earlier musical sensibility, but he was also a product of his times and brought a combustible rock ’n’ roll energy and youthful swagger to even his most Sinatra-esque recordings. By the same token, Slavin’s yearning, nostalgic romanticism can’t help but be informed by the music of his own era.
An avid record collector (with more than 600 vinyl albums) who earnestly studies his favorite singers, Slavin nonetheless takes pains to avoid mimicking their vocal techniques. His phrasing might be as smooth and impeccable as his pinstripe suits, but it is also highly idiosyncratic. And he constantly seeks out obscure material that will set him apart from bandwagon-jumping standards interpreters (raise your hand, Rod Stewart).
“I pride myself on never singing a song the same way twice,” Slavin says. “I have worked extremely hard at not being a parody of singers that came before me. I only sing a song if it speaks to me, if it does something for me.
“There are a lot of great jazz standards that I don’t think work for me. They may be fantastic, but just because Frank Sinatra sang it doesn’t mean I’m going to. Some numbers just don’t work for me, some I just can’t sell.” •