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Jacqui Naylor Live at Berkeley’s Jazz School: Shades of Blossom

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The Sunday evening overcast was a gray sheen in the basement windows across the top of the south-facing wall. The cheap, round cafe tables were spread haphazardly around the room. Josh Jones, Jacqui Naylor’s percussionist, and I had just finished talking about who was going to win the NFL playoff game. He’d sneaked across the street to a fitness joint to check out the score on the TVs over the treadmills.

The music began. The afternoon was a brief escape from the treadmills, the playoffs, and the world of what must get done. At the Jazz School in Berkeley, CA on Jan 22nd, I was fortunate to be invited to a small gathering of Jacqui’s fans for two 50-minute sets of music. Jacqui showed off some of her new stylings such as her version of Prince’s “Kiss,” her version of “Skylark,” of Dayna Kurtz’s “Love Gets In the Way,” a tune called “Easy Ride,” a smart and telling version of R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion,” a version of Shirley Horn’s “Here’s to Life,” as well as a few other newbies.

She also played through a retrospective assortment of work from her first four releases – she played “What a Little Moonlight…” from her self-titled first release (the yellow one) midway through the second set. She started off the first set with “Lazy Afternoon” from her second album, (the red one) Live at the Plush Room. She played stuff like “Before I’m Gone” and “Shelter” off her third album, (the blue one) Shelter.

From her breakthrough collection, her fourth (the brown one) Live East/West she played at least four or five songs. The delight was tangible in such an intimate setting, in a jazz school basement, on a Sunday’s lazy afternoon in Berkeley… it doesn’t get much better.

I can’t say if it is obvious from the set list, but I think attentive fans can see Jacqui’s perspective has deepened and clarified over the course of her four releases. I think her unique point of view has been a process of discovery. In the first releases she explored what tunes fit her and what tunes she fit. This evolution of her perspective has become a big part of appreciating her.

The spirit-cum-art-cum-pop incommensurability that one should feel when listening to an artist who ranges from AC/DC to “Tea for Two” in just a few short minutes – never materializes when listening to Jacqui. This is because the songs, their lyrics, their meanings, and the way she sings them are subsumed by the overarching and evolving extension of her artistic spirit. The unifying quality of her singing stylization further contributes to this odd synthesis. Who would put Jimi Hendrix’s “Angel” and Blossom Dearie’s “Try Your Wings” in the same category of music? No one – but Jacqui does, and in Jacqui’s capable hands songs as varied as these hold together around the simple dimensions of her appeal.

I mentioned Blossom Dearie’s “Try Your Wings.” At the Jazz School event, half way through the first set, Jacqui gave us “Try Your Wings.” Understated, even simple, the song suggested to me a crystallization of Jacqui’s evolving consciousness. The song gave us Jacqui’s recurring theme of applauding her influences, of calling attention to beautiful, womanly, songs and singers to whom she feels indebted. Despite how uncategorizable I make her sound – Jacqui is in many ways a traditionalist who has deep respect and knowledge and honor for the tradition out of which she springs. When Jacqui takes on another’s song, she has this odd and rare ability to both honor its maker, its origin, and to make it her own.

“Try Your Wings” for me reflected Jacqui’s point of view on art and making and being. Her personal history is no secret. She was a VP of Marketing in the Fashion Industry — living and working in New York City — but, fortunately for us, she was unfulfilled. With virtually no formal training and really nothing but the desire to be a singer, she found a way to explore what really excited her. What really excited Jacqui was not corporate marketing but jazz singing. In Blossom Dearie’s “Try Your Wings” there is an implied prescription – without there ever being any commercial-pseudo-pop righteousness that one of the purposes of being a human on this planet is finding and following your own path.

Jacqui’s message is so subtle one never feels proselytized – one in effect is moved from tears to laughter in her performances through the subtle interiors of her song choices. One never feels entertained in a conventional sense in Jacqui’s performances — the sensation is odd — one feels harmonized, one feels an overwhelming sense of freedom that manifests itself in a feeling of appreciation. Jacqui’s performances can make you feel as if you are the one being appreciated.

So when Jacqui sings Blossom we get the sense Jacqui is applauding Blossom, and in Jacqui’s version of “Try Your Wings” the listener feels as if their own bliss is being encouraged by Jacqui. This is as if the goal of her performances were to grant you belief in your own personal dreams.

But all this would be oh so dreary of it were not for the sense of the comic that pervades Jacqui’s work. Blossom’s work too was highlighted by her giddy sense of humor: do listen to “If I were a Bell.” If you listen to “Cheese Puff Daddy” by Naylor and listen to any number of tunes by Dearie – you feel the same comic tune. This is not stand-up comedy, rather a kind of pathos that can bring a smile to almost anyone. Dearie spent years and years recording for others – that was until she could see the labels had no interest in her music so she started her own, Daffodil.

I don’t know how many fans are aware that Jacqui started her own label, Ruby Star Records, so that she might produce her own work. But the similarities between Blossom and Jacqui, while not limitless, do not end there. Blossom’s stylizations of other people’s songs had the same character as Jacqui’s in that they clearly honor their sources — however irreverent — but the songs were made very much Blossom’s own.

Blossom, when she was in Paris, formed a band call the Blue Stars. Is Jacqui’s label Ruby Star a sister to this effort of Blossom’s? Blossom’s most famous release from Capitol Records was “May I Come In” and I’d suggest you look at Jacqui’s first release and look seven songs in… what do you see? Yes, “May I Come In.”

Blossom’s work with Cole Porter was legendary! At the Jazz School event I attended, the eighth song Jacqui sang was Cole Porter’s “Just One of Those Things.” A song Blossom sang on her release “Give Him the Ooh-la-la” and elsewhere. Oh yes, by the way, Blossom’s “Try Your Wings” is the fifth track on “Give Him the Ooh-la-la.”

I’ve commented before that Jacqui in many ways is of the less is more school – who do you think invented that school other than Blossom? It is difficult to say who treads more lightly Blossom or Naylor. Perhaps the ultimate less is more song “Tea for Two” is the tune Jacqui played as her encore at the Jazz School. Blossom’s “Once upon a Summertime” features “Tea for Two.”

Dearie still sings in Manhattan. Thought of as the last practitioner of her specialized art of vocal styling and the dinner club singer/songwriter – Blossom, for all our love of her career and talent, has not had the fame and fortune one would hope for one who has brought so much pleasure to so many. I would go so far as to say — though she has never said so – that her life in music has been hard. Relative to her gifts and her contribution to the tradition, she has been as underappreciated and undervalued as any artist on the planet. One hopes time and circumstance will shift this inequity now and long into the future.

Four of Jacqui’s 21 songs at The Jazz School were right out of Blossom’s mouth. While Jacqui mentioned Blossom only in passing before singing “Try Your Wings” in her typically understated way — and by way of implication — through her choices, Naylor put Blossom into the fore of her performance.

I think due to times and circumstances Jacqui has the benefits of her time and need not be subject to the limitations that Dearie was unquestionably stunted by a male dominated sleaze-stack of record producers, a climate in which jazz fell into disfavor, a period when it was considered the more notes and the louder the singer’s voice the better.

Also, Jacqui has equipped herself with the lessons of a tradition that Blossom did not have. Blossom did not have Blossom to draw strength from. I’ll even go so far as to say that Blossom lacked a path forward as an artist. That her struggle to get beyond the industry may have been her crowning achievement and that her evolution as an artist, to some degree plateaued at that point. This is not a criticism — Blossom is beyond criticism — no one can fault her for being the first of a kind… perhaps one of a kind forever. But her niche — due to no fault of her own — never evolved into a commodity in the marketplace.

Jacqui’s power comes from her ability to draw on this history, Blossom’s path. But Jacqui’s power also comes from the power of pop culture. Also, Jacqui draws from the unique combination of musicians she has managed to cobble together to accompany her. Her band is a team of virtuosos and their contribution to Jacqui’s evolution cannot be overstated. Is Josh Jones the coolest, most subtle percussionist on the planet? His solos illustrate the genius of what is opposite louder and faster and on phrase. My intent here is to draw attention to Jacqui’s accompaniment – not slight Blossom’s for Blossom has worked with the Mt. Olympus of Jazz musicians… she was not slighted in that regard.

Jacqui’s development as an artist has been fed by what I think of as an odd supplement. I think her progress as an artist is important to her and that she wants to stretch always in new and interesting ways, but always in relationship to her point of view and the tradition from which she springs. Her version of “Try Your Wings” by Blossom Dearie is the story of her own blossoming.

Just yesterday, April 23rd, Jacqui performed a free concert at the SGI Buddhist Center as part of their Music for Peace series. She and her band performed for one hour and she performed, I think, many of her most popular tunes with a heavy weight on East/West to a crowd of at least 300 people. The effort was a synthesis of music, her art, and her spiritual life.

I don’t want to make more of this than need be but as an artist she has the developmental itinerary of her personal practice of Buddhism to guide her artistic development. I think this strange and wonderful at the same time. Are there other jazz-pop vocal stylists who sing Blossom Dearie and Jimi Hendrix and practice Buddhism?

Methinks only San Francisco could produce such a conciliate version of such a multivariate talent: how was that for a mouthful (uggh).

Consider her tear-jerker, “Sun in the Morning”: When Jacqui sings “Sun in the Morning” usually dedicated to a dear, departed friend, audience members begin to cry. I cried. Considering the lyrics of this accidentally very Buddhist song, one might ask, “why cry?” Yet, the sheer force of beauty shone upon the spirit of the listener is beyond one’s ability to divert the song from its simple, clear, subtle power. Even the most deeply cynical melt at the touch of the song in Jacqui’s unique treatment.

Just as I find it jaw-dropping that Naylor can bring Prince and Annie Oakley into musical alignment–I find it equally exciting to follow the development of an artist who balances Blossom Dearie’s world in one hand and a Lotus blossom in the other.

Jacqui’s next release, The Color Five, is due for release August 29th 2006. I don’t know what songs will be on it for certain but here is my guess at a few: Dayna Kurtz’s “Love Gets In the Way,” Prince’s “Kiss,” Blossom Dearie’s “Try Your Wings,” “Skylark,” Shirley Horn’s “Here’s to Life,” Naylor’s “Easy Ride,” R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion,” and lastly a version of the Kink’s “Lola” mixed with the tune “Sidewinder” with an added trans-gendering twist! So look out! It should be good.

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About David Koehn