Review San Francisco Chronicle
Kim Nalley doesn't just sell a song. Her body dancing as her remarkably full and flexible voice sails all around and through the melody, Nalley sells the whole room - and then some.
You don't need those gardenias in her hair to realize that her tuneful, buoyant, sexy and joyfully jazzy Rrazz Room debut is one helluva tribute to Billie Holiday.
That's right, joyful. Anyone looking for an evening with the cracked husk of a voice but still fine stylings of Holiday's final years will have to go elsewhere. Nalley's "The Heart of Lady Day," which opened Thursday, celebrates the young songbird who made her voice one of the greatest of jazz instruments.
Nalley is the woman for the job. A fine vocalist, she has the range - 3 1/2 octaves - to cover everyone from Bessie Smith, whose earthy tones infuse her version of a very, young Holiday on "'Taint Nobody's Business," to the vocal pyrotechnics of Ella Fitzgerald - as she does, hilariously, in her and Holiday's takes on "Fine and Mellow." And she performs with a generosity of spirit that embraces and energizes the entire audience.
She's also a first-rate jazz historian, sketching the story of sexually abused child Eleanora Fagan's rise to jazz stardom and some of her problematic career as Lady Day between songs - just as her song stylings, and those of brilliant pianist Tammy Hall (at the head of a strong quartet), trace the development of jazz from the '30s to '50s.
The 90-minute Rrazz Room set is an abridged version of a longer tribute Nalley developed after playing the young Holiday in the play "Lady Day in Love." Thursday, she was still shaping the show on the fly, editing the song list as she went along.
It scarcely matters which songs get left out and which included. Every one Nalley and her band perform is a classic. She doesn't imitate Holiday so much as channel her spirit - at its most spirited and musically inventive - whether in evoking the familiar swing from rapid phrasings to a long drawl, swooping from angelic highs to guttural low notes or delighting in a rapid scat duet with drummer Kent Bryson.
This is the Billie Holiday of my youth, the one who sang in the club downstairs when I was an infant in Greenwich Village and whose 78s were the soundtrack of my childhood. Nalley makes her sing again.
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