Wednesday night at Blues Alley, aspiring young vocalist Lenora Zenzalai Helm delivered a remarkable set marked by gutsy interpretations and bold arrangements. Helm is a graceful performer, as illustrated by her reading of Wayne Shorter's classic "Footprints." The piece, now titled "Ode to a Soulmate," began with a thunderous polyrhythmic solo from drummer Nasheet Waits and then ignited into a swift workout featuring lively scats from Helm and a rollicking solo by pianist Orrin Evans. Evans, an idiosyncratic pianist who was first runner-up in last year's Thelonious Monk competition, was particularly impressive as he concocted huge chords that complemented Helm's voice.
Helm is blessed with a mighty instrument that will undoubtedly become more persuasive with age and experience. At times she relied too heavily on the power of her voice or her excellent scatting. But her charming duet with bassist Miriam Sullivan on Annie Ross's and Wardell Gray's "Twisted" suggested that she's well on her way to manipulating more subtleties and nuances in her singing.
Duke Ellington's "T.G.T.T." (for "Too Good to Title") was the set's oddest selection, but it proved to be Helm's most shining moment. The rare composition is a part of Ellington's Second Sacred Concert. Its wordless melancholy was the perfect vehicle for Helm to demonstrate her opera training, and her operatic melismas captured the ethereal and earthy spirituality of the original.