By Devon Wendell
Nostalgic pride and sheer enthusiasm for jazz’s greatest ghosts and their immortal glory was what L.A.’s own Magnolia Memoir brought to the stage at King King in Hollywood Monday night.
The band — singer Mela Lee, trumpeter Marcus Graf, bassist Gordon Bash and vibist Alex Burke (with assorted guests) — wasted no time getting down to business, delivering a mix of sultry jazz and soulfully funky, low key pop to a quiet, attentive audience on the very first number, “Not With Me,” from the group’s upcoming self-titled, debut album. Graf’s trumpet playing conjured the mood and tone of Miles Davis on the soundtrack of the Louis Malle film noir classic Ascenseur Pour L’Echafaud, offering solid call and response interaction with Lee’s Billie Holiday-inspired vocals. And Burke was particularly outstanding with some very subtle vibes work as Magnolia Memoir thoroughly established its smoky, after hours, modern cabaret ambiance.
With “Unexpected Bliss,” which had a Brazilian jazz-fused-with-reggae feel to it, it became apparent that vocalist Lee was the standout star of the group. Her child-like presence and well thought out facial expressions and body language — hands on hips, raised eyebrows, finger waving, gracefully grasping the microphone stand — brought to mind the elegance of Ella Fitzgerald and the sass of Etta James. Aside from her obvious homage to Lady Day, however, her wide vocal range with its fast vibrato and giddy playfulness placed her somewhere between Betty Boop, Ma Rainey, Rikki Lee Jones, and Gwen Stefani.
Bash’s solid upright bass playing and fun stage antics — such as twirling the bass and even hopping on top of it while playing — locked in with Steve Hass’s bare, rock-influenced, compressed drum sound, with Burke alternating between vibes and organ on “When I Think of You” and Billie Holiday’s “Don’t Explain.” But Graf’s trumpet seemed safest when muted, as he would often go over the top with frenetic bop Dizzyisms, distracting from the band’s lush, atmospheric sound. This was particularly evident when Lee left the stage and the band performed the instrumental, “Last Night in New York.” Lee’s presence was sorely missed, and the piece seemed out of place and unnecessary in comparison to the rest of the set.
The situation improved when guitarist Willie Clow switched to banjo, and Bash from bass to acoustic guitar, dueting on vocals with Lee on the Jelly Roll/Tampa Red ragtime swing of the humorous “Spending Mood.” Next, Lee spoke sincerely to the audience about sadness, loss and gratitude, even breaking down in tears, as she recalled the loss of her parents before the set’s closing number “My Heart,” a melancholy, yet hopeful ballad in which she was backed by Burke’s Bobby Timmons-styled jazz soul piano — a highlight of the show. The number was also backed by the gospel choir of Deborah Sharp-Taylor & The United Voices of Peace, who appeared off stage, accentuating Lee’s vocals. But it was an unnecessary addition, because Lee’s stage presence said it all, with the presence of the choir feeling like a cliché.
For the encore, it was clear that everyone was having fun as Lee urged to crowd to stand, clap, and sing, as the band took the energy level higher with a cover of the White Stripes’ “My Doorbell,” along with “Uh Oh,” featuring some distortion-heavy, grungy guitar chops by Clow. Roaring to a climax, they were joined by Toby Karlin’s exceptionally fine baritone sax playing and the vibes work of Tami Lefko (replacing Burke). Unfortunately, what Lefko played was rendered virtually inaudible by Bashe’s loud, thumping bass, Clow’s electric guitar, and Karlin’s wailing sax. Even so, with the new people onstage, as the show came to an end, Magnolia Memoir still seemed to be just getting warmed up.
But what was clear from this high energy set was the fact that Mela Lee is definitely a charismatic performer to watch. And, although there were some rough edges that needed smoothing to fit the overall flow of the set, Magnolia Memoir’s strong dedication to straight ahead jazz with dashes of modern soul made for an engaging performance.