The simple, unadorned, almost offhanded delivery of Carmen McCrae. The exquisitely ethereal, almost rococo embellishments of Morgana King. To hear both singers perform in town this week is to sample a wide range of vocal artistry.
At Blues Alley last night, McCrae opened the set with "Linger Awhile," the title neatly summing up the singer's casual approach to a lyric. Backed by the young and sometimes overeager Donald Bailey Trio, McCrae had to pull in the reins occasionally. But once the trio picked up on her cues, everything fell into place and an hour of intimate jazz unfolded.
Duke Ellington's "Prelude to a Kiss," for example, was soft as silk, a lushly romantic showcase for McCrae's distinctly reedy voice and calmly melismatic phrasing.
During the plaintive "Where Were You When I Needed You," she scatted between verses in her typically spacious and reflective manner, allowing each word to sink in.
"Billie's Blues," however, required a more adamant approach. Pianist Marshall Otwell's tremolo-laden accompaniment provided just the right mood and tempo, and McCrae's version of the song, written by her principal influence, Billie Holiday, was delightfully bold and brassy. Whatever the tune, McCrae's deceptively easy sense of rhythm and time consistently emphasized the words and enhanced the music.
By contrast, Morgana King's performance at Charlie's last night occasionally favored her exceptional range and control at the expense of such lyrics as "Time After Time" and "My Funny Valentine." King is such a highly stylized vocalist--so fond is she of soaring into the rarefied atmosphere of her upper range--that her technique frequently draws attention to itself, and some of the ballads she sang seemed unnecessarily showy and theatrical.
But these were minor irritations in an otherwise thoroughly enjoyable set. Given the simple, swinging pulse of "Ain't Misbehavin'," " 'S Wonderful," or "Love Is Sweeping the Country," King glided effortlessly across the gentle rhythms with great warmth, wit and charm. Providing those rhythms was the fine local trio of pianist Stef Scaggiari, bassist Paul Langosch and drummer Bill Reichenbach.
Both King and McCrae will be performing in town through Sunday.