Sam Harris

Before there was American Idol, there was Star Search. And say what you will, no better singer has ever been ferreted out of either audience-pleasing competitions than first Star Search winner Sam Harris. A former New York resident who now resides in Los Angeles, Harris returned east this weekend for a two-night Birdland stay. While adding another distinguished name to the invaluable Birdland on Broadway series, he also handily proved beyond much doubt that he's not only the supreme talent-contest winner of the last few decades but also one of the very best — maybe the best — singers at work today.

What's he got that others don't, aside from capable Todd Schroeder at the piano? If you itemize his gifts singly, not much. Many others have a powerful and supple voice, impeccable instincts, savvy choice in material, spontaneous humor (although apparently he's scripted every one of his convincing ad libs), physical agility, good looks, and — as the song says — miles and miles of heart. It's just that few other singers have all these gifts in one electric onstage blend.

Dressed as usual in black and grousing a bit about gaining 20 pounds, he did his usual eclectic thing when it came to the songs. And there's no question he thinks about every word he's voicing of a lyricist's statement. On Eric Clapton's "If I Could Change the World," he resorts to the ever-popular American Idol melisma but only for vocal punning on the word change. In an aching "I Can't Make You Love Me (If You Don't)" (Mike Reid-Allen Shamblin), he tacks on three heartbreaking words at the very end — an irrevocable "and you don't." For the last line about hope in the Oscar Hammerstein II-Richard Rodgers "A Cockeyed Optimist," he also adds three words to the final line, making it "And I can't — and I won't — get it out of my heart." Yup, he's inspired from start to finish.

Presented by and at Birdland,

315 W. 44th St., NYC.

Dec. 16 and 17.