Stacey KentWho Knew?
Until recently, I'd heard Kent only a few times, on NPR's Sunday standards show, and she didn't make much of an impression. When it comes to balladeers of the American songbook, my taste leans to Sarah Vaughn, mid-period Ella Fitzgerald, June Christy, Shirley Hornchesty singers with a sultry, sensuous edge. In no way does that describe Stacey Kent. Her voice was soft, kittenish. Not my type.
Then two things happened. I was at Rizzoli's bookstore, that treasure house on 57th Street, a week or so before it closed, and I was drawn to the song on the PA. It sounded like one of those Stan Ketz bossa nova albums, but with a female singer. Who was she? What album was this? I went up to the third floor, where they sold CDs, and the clerk said it was The Changing Lights, the new album (on the Warner Bros. label) by Stacey Kent.
Not long after, my wife and I were in Paris, enjoying breakfast at a boulangerie in the Marais. Good music was playing on the house stereo, when suddenly on came a French woman singing an upbeat love song. What was this? Who was this? On the way out, we asked the proprietor, who, as we suspected, had put together the playlist. It wasn't a French woman, he said. It was Stacey Kent, singing in French.
Maybe I'd been missing something about Stacey Kent.
Then, this week, she was making her semi-annual appearance at Birdland. We decided to check her out. She's still not sultry or sensuous; she still has a soft, kittenish voice. But there's an undeniable appeal about her: an immersive intimacy, a casually precise intonation, a persuasive way with turning a song into a story, her story.
She sang a mix of American standards, French love songs, Brazilian sambas (she's fluent in French and Portuguese, among other languages), and originals by Jim Tomlinson (her music director and husband, who also plays tenor sax, flute, and guitar in the band), with lyrics by the novelist (and their friend) Kazuo Ishiguro. Tomlinson is an expert reedman who's clearly studied up on Stan Getz. The rhythm section consists of highly competent musicians who've clearly studied up on the Getz-Jobim albums.
As for those lyrics: judging from the set and the latest album, sometimes they're a bit banal or too cute (like "Waiter, Oh Waiter," about a girl who doesn't understand the menu in a high-class restaurant), sometimes they're exquisite (the title song, about longtime lovers traveling through a city).
She's at Birdland through Sunday (June 15). The Changing Lights (on the Warner Bros. label) is engineered by Victor Borges (a new name to name) and sounds very good.
So now I have to check out Stacey Kent's back catalog. Are there any fans out there? Where should I start?