Monday, June 13, 2011

Review: Deborah Brown at the Gem Theater

Ida McBeth sang the national anthem at the inaugural event of Livestrong Sporting Park last week. Kelley Hunt served as the headliner at the Gladstone BluesFest on Saturday. That's as it should be. Both women have paid decades of dues on the regional jazz and blues scenes.

Meanwhile Deborah Brown, considered by many to be one of the world's greatest jazz vocalists, is a virtual unknown in her hometown of Kansas City. Perhaps the events of last weekend will help raise her profile. After playing Friday and Saturday at the Blue Room, Brown and a Dutch band led by drummer Eric Ineke relocated to the Gem Theater on Sunday. According to Joe Klopus' preview of the concert, a new recording is in the works.

I arrived at the Gem in time to hear the final thirty minutes of a performance by a band fronted by Kevin Johnson. The vocalist fancies himself a ladykiller in the vein of Luther Vandross. He's not. His cloying versions of songs by James Ingram, Marvin Gaye and Kenny Latimore was made bearable by a solid four-piece band that included pianist Phillip Brown.

After Johnson's set concluded, Deborah Brown lauded her brother Phillip's accomplishments. They performed a charming version of "Gee Baby, Ain't I Good To You" together. The duet allowed Phillip to show off his intriguing approach to piano. A forty-minute break ensued, allowing the approximately 200 people in attendance- most of whom seemed to know one another- to trade compliments about their handsome Sunday wardrobe selections.

"This is one of the best bands in Europe," emcee David Basse professed as he introduced Ineke's ensemble. "They've come to Kansas City to see what we do here."

Led by Ineke, Sjoerd Djikhuizen, tenor saxophone, Fereira Neves, trumpet, Rob van Bavel, piano, and Marius Beets, bass, expertly played straight ahead swing. That suits Brown's sensibilities. She's in thrall of Ella, Sarah and Nancy. Her voice- dare I say it?- is their equal.

"We're doing the music of Duke Ellington," Brown explained. "We had to tweak it to make it sound like the music of today."

If, by "the music of today," Brown meant 1965, her statement was accurate. I'm not complaining. Almost everything they played was exceptional. More importantly, they allowed Brown to showcase her stunning voice. She's one of the very few scat-oriented vocalists that doesn't make me cringe.

An unconventional arrangement of "Mood Indigo" was refreshing. A take on "In My Solitude" was gorgeous. A rendition of "My Old Flame" was sultry. The less familiar "I'm Checkin' Out, Goombye" provided lighthearted counterpoint. The immaculate interplay of Djikhuizen and Neves on the latter selection was remarkable. A man identified as Mayor Sly James joined Brown and the band on stage for a call-and-response version of "Kansas City." I'm not sure it was actually him, however, as he sounded far too good for a politician.

At just over an hour, Brown's performance might seem as if it didn't justify its $25 price tag. Those who were there, however, know that the quality of Brown's effort compensated for its lack of quantity.

(Original blurry image by Plastic Sax.)


Russell Thorpe said...

finally! a review that isn't all aglow with lavish praise. this is what I expect when you make it to one of my shows. telling me what went good is great, but critical feedback helps make a band better. you better bag on me or I'll be disappointed. see you on Sunday at Cowtown mallroom at 2?

bgo said...

Sly is a great singer. At least he was in 1969 when he was the front guy in a rock band that opened for Jefferson Airplane at Memorial Hall.

Anonymous said...

Critical feedback from a reviewer does not help or hurt. Its taken with a grain of salt. Most effective band leaders with long shelf lives in the business (jazz or otherwise) carefully craft every detail of a set, concert or recording. Its not something you throw together, you sleep on it, revise it, consult an expert opinion and revise again, before you present it.

BTW, Great Kenny Rogers review Bill. Jazz musicians can learn a lot from going to a Kenny Rogers concert. His pacing, his tempos, talking enough to the audience but not too much. Kenny Rogers began as a jazz bass player but it is no accident that he has had a long shelf life. He takes care of business and goes after the details of every performance.

I saw him at Starlight several years ago and he had some KC horn players with him. He made a point of announcing their names after their solos without a cheat sheet.
Thats class!

Check out Kenny Rogers' standards album conducted and arranged by David Foster. I have not heard a better approach in the last 30 years. It is the best standards album out there. Blows away Buble, Natalie Cole, Rod Stewart etc. Kenny's phrasing is flawless, his pitch is perfect (way before Pro-tools)and his timing is meticulous. Reminds me of Shirley Horn's approach.

Russell Thorpe said...

I would argue that critical feedback helps, especially if said band or band leader is comfortable enough to act on said feedback. I agree with you anon, too few people put thought into set-listing and stage presence and etc. If you make the entire experience enjoyable then you're more likely to get repeat listeners, therefore it behooves one to actually care what the audience thinks.

Wish i could've been at Kenny Rogers, but sometimes you;ve just got to know when to hold 'em. I didn't know he began as a bull-fiddler, thats nice to know. I always enjoyed his appearances in many a 1980's made for TV movie.