By Don Heckman
One of Denise Donatelli’s most unique characteristics as a jazz singer is her confident willingness to perform in complex musical settings with stellar jazz instrumentalists. Her new CD, When Lights Are Low, is a good example. Like her previous release, What Lies Within, it includes arrangements by Geoffrey Keezer that virtually translate some of the tracks into art song settings.
Attractive as the charts may be, they can also make their own demands. But Donatelli can handle them. Credit her innate musicality with her capacity to find her own interpretive pathways through an instrumental countryside that sometimes insists upon maintaining its own atmospheric milieu.
All of which was apparent Thursday night at Vitello’s, when Donatelli celebrated the release of the album, backed by Keezer, guitarist Pete Sprague, saxophonist/woodwind player Rob Lockart, bassist Hamilton Price and drummer Marvin “Smitty” Smith, with singers Julia Dollison and Kerry Marsh adding back-up vocals on a few tunes. In some cases – “Don’t Explain” was one – the ensemble sound was less lush in timbre than the larger, string-rich ensemble present for those tunes on the recording. But, in most of the selections, her singing was showcased within carefully framed and structured arrangements.
Each chart called upon Donatelli’s vocal versatility. Occasionally – as in segments of “It’s You Or No One” – she was asked to supplement her articulate rendering of a song by adding wordless vocal sounds to the textures of the instrumental ensemble. Often, her readings were surrounded by complex counterlines. Yet, despite the fact that some of the extended soloing left her to simply stand there, listen and smile, despite the fact that Smith’s busy, high decibel drumming sometimes seemed to overwhelm Vitello’s intimate performance room, Donatelli appeared content to maintain an equally level playing field with her musicians.
But there also were passages – her vocals on “Don’t Explain” and “Kisses (Cantor de Noite)” – in which brief opportunities opened up for Donatelli to tell the musical story in her own way. And it was in those moments – reminiscent of the voice and piano version of “Why Did I Choose You” on the album – that her rich interpretive skills came fully into the spotlight.
It’s worth noting that the sound reproduction didn’t help matters. Given a more carefully blended audio mix, one in which the central focus was on Donatelli’s vocals, the integration of voice and background would have been far more effective. As effective as it is on the album, When Lights Are Low, which underscores Donatelli’s growing visibility as she rises toward the highest levels of the jazz vocal art.
Photo by Faith Frenz.