As the biographical sketch on Denise King’s website explains, the Philadelphia-born singer has had no formal vocal training, but “it’s apparent that Denise was born to sing.” And although she dabbles in different genres, her real love is jazz. As a singer she sees herself as following in a great tradition. In a real sense, she is an heir to the great ladies of the past: Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Nina Simone, and Carmen McRae—these are the divas she looked to for models, and they served her well.
In Give Me the High Sign, she rejoins with pianist/composer/arranger Olivier Hutman. A follow-up to their 2011 trio album, No Tricks and after a few years of touring together, the new album builds on their success with a powerful set of original compositions and a standard or two that highlight the singer’s rich voice and spot-on phrasing. The trio, Hutman on piano and keys, Darryl Hall on double bass and Steve Williams on drums, is supplemented on the new album by the trumpet of Stephane Belmondo and Olivier Temime’s saxophone.
Eight of the songs are Hutman compositions. Three have lyrics by King and the rest are by Viana Wember-Hutman. It is interesting that the King tunes—“Mellow Mellow,” “Can You Do It?” and “Give Me the High Sign”—all seem to have a definite swinging bebop vibe, while the dominant modes of the others are more often the torchy love ballad and rocking blues. Indeed throughout most of the album, the singer seems to alternate between a kind of sultry sexiness and some upbeat modern bopping. It makes for an engaging stylistic mix. From the intensity of “I Lost My Way” which opens the album to the very catchy melody of “Mellow Mellow” and the dramatic “The Things We Don’t Want,” King is equally at home in all styles.
She handles Hutman’s arrangements of the standards with creative respect. They do a killer take on “I Only Have Eyes For You” that is no doubt the diamond on the album. But their versions of “Blame It on My Youth,” “Save the Children” and “Daydream” aren’t far behind.
If your list of jazz divas includes Ella and Sarah and Nina, listen to this lady singing “Blame It on My Youth,” and you may want to add the name Denise to that list.