By Don Heckman
Karen Lovely. Yes, it’s a real name, and don’t forget it. She may not have very high visibility yet. But if there’s any justice (which is always questionable, of course) she’ll soon be achieving a stronger presence on the music world viewscreen.
Lovely’s performance at Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc. Tuesday night was one of the most unexpected pleasures of recent memory. Oregon-based, she arrived with little advance notice, backed by a four piece band that interacted with almost symbiotic musical togetherness, enthusiastically riding the surging crests of her passionate interpretations of the blues.
And not just the blues. Although almost everything she sang was rooted in various combinations of blues changes, the program of songs – mostly written by Dennis Walker and Alan Mirikitani – ranged through an expansive array of emotions. Lovely’s voice, moving with ease from darkly intimate intensity to earthshaking high passion, brought each tune to life, finding both the inner heart and the expressive story within songs ranging from the shadowy “Still the Rain” to the classic drive of “I’ve Had Enough” and “Knock Knock.”
Lovely’s style begins from sources within such classic blues singers as Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith. And, like Janis Joplin before her, she has translated those influences into an utterly gripping contemporary style of her own.
Her set, which ran non-stop for nearly two hours, was superbly supported by a band that could do no wrong. Pianist Michael Vannice also doubled on tenor saxophone with a gutsy drive recalling the blues vitality of the Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts of the ‘40s. Guitarist Leonard Griffie stepped up with solid backing, as well as soloing to counter Lovely’s far-ranging excursions. And the rhythm team of bassist Bobby D and drummer Teri Coté added an irresistibly propulsive engine of rhythm to the proceedings.
They were joined on a final few tunes by the dynamic tenor saxophone playing of Albert Wing, veteran of gigs with Frank Zappa and Larry Carlton, among others. Soaring through the high harmonics of his instrument, Wing countered Lovely’s singing with his own compelling, blues-driven instrumental vocalizations.
But ultimately, it was Lovely who claimed and deserved the spotlight, maintaining her high performance level from beginning to end. And if there was any tiny flaw in her set, it was the need to balance her stunning musicality with a bit more spoken interaction with her listeners. It would have been good, for example, to have her tell us something about the composers and the backgrounds of some of the tunes she sang. But that’s a minor carp in the broader context of what Lovely had to offer in the spellbinding adventure of each of her interpretations.
Leaving Vibrato, driving down Beverly Glen, a tune came to mind, directly inspired – despite its stylistic differences – by what I’d just heard. The tune was Cole Porter’s “It’s De-Lovely,” and it’s not a blues. But both the name and the lyrics – “It’s de-lightful, it’s de-licious, it’s delovely” – apply perfectly to the singing of Karen Lovely. Remember the name.
Photo by Tony Gieske.