Dayna Kurtz's voice is a deep-hued garnet of lifeblood and beauty, and on her third full-length CD, "Beautiful Yesterday," she places the great big gem in settings that further enhance it. The studio album, produced by Kurtz and her percussionist Randy Crafton, has the intimate feel of a small club, wherein the Jersey girl-turned-Brooklynite recounts the sad tales of many eras.
With only three originals among "Yesterday's" 12 songs, Prince ends up rubbing elbows here with Mary Hopkin, and Jim Jarmusch icon Estzer Balint is chased by Duke Ellington. Kurtz tackles covers and her own material with equal abandon, so that the new torcher "Love, Where Did You Go" holds up with integrity alongside an exquisite reading of Billie Holiday's "Left Alone." On the latter, her voice drops to a low pitch that's a bit of a challenge -- with its husky timbre, it's as gender-bending as Little Jimmy Scott's. As she sings "Up till now it hasn't been that way," it slices up the scale in passionate pain on the final word, only to dip downward into a depressed moan as she muses: "Maybe fate has let him pass me by."
She serves Prince's "Joy in Repetition" fairly well -- she's got the pipes for the soulful vibe the song demands -- but it's not much of a melodic workout for her. And then she takes a song with even less of a melody, Leonard Cohen's "Everybody Knows," and crafts it into a deadpan deconstruction of a corrupt world, complete with a wholly unexpected gospel-style overdubbed chorus like the wailing of the damned.
Kurtz is also a fine guitarist, playing slide on one of the album's standout tracks, Balint's "Amsterdam Crown," and providing a brooding, Nick Drake-like tangle of acoustic notes on another, "I Belong to the Wind." This track, like many of Drake's, is enhanced by a string section, here the classical quartet Ethel.
Elsewhere, Norah Jones pitches in on piano and vocals on Ellington's "I Got It Bad (and That Ain't Good)," but the guests are secondary to the "house band" of percussionist Crafton, bassist Dave Richards and keyboardist Peter Vitalone.
Here and there, Kurtz leans a little hard on an ironic phrase or pushes those low notes just a little too far. But those missteps only add to the album's intimate charms, and to the listener's sense of discovery in hearing a talent so accomplished and yet so little-known.
Dayna Kurtz will perform at 8:30 p.m. Monday at Iota.