If, like me, the only thing you know about Lea DeLaria is her fine-tuned portrayal of Big Boo, the butch lesbian in Orange Is the New Black, you’ve got a surprise coming. It turns out that DeLaria is one stylish jazz singer with a voice belied by her television image. This lady can sing.
The proof is on her recently released album, House of David, a collection of renditions of a dozen David Bowie compositions. These are not ordinary run of the mill covers. Joined by a varying ensemble of swinging musicians, DeLaria transforms the songs, takes them and makes them her own.
As she explains in a short liner note, she fell in love with Bowie’s music back in 1972 when, hanging out in a boyfriend’s basement, she first heard the strains of “Starman.” It was a love she defines in superlatives: “David Bowie, God of Rock. . . . David Bowie, to me, the defining singer-songwriter of the latter part of the 20th century.” Even without her praise, her passion for the music is clear in her performance.
From the very first song, “Fame,” her arrangement lets you know she is not interested in mere pop copies. Her vocals are crisply creative, and her band is tight. It is only a taste of the goodies to come.
She follows with excellent versions of “Space Oddity,” “Golden Years,” and “Suffragette City” before getting to her own take on “Starman.” Here, she spotlights her rich voice by paring down the ensemble to a quartet featuring sweet solo work from Kevin Hays on piano and Kenny Wollesen on drums.
Other highlights are the even more greatly pared down “Let’s Dance,” where she works with Hays and Tony Scherr on acoustic bass, and “Boys Keep Swinging,” which contains some swinging tenor sax from Seamus Blake. “Life on Mars?” is a dark torch song that builds to a dynamic emotional climax, while “The Jean Genie” has a funky vibe. The set ends with Bowie classics “Modern Love” and “Young Americans.” By the time you get to the end of the album, if you don’t feel that Bowie is a god, you may well feel that Lea DeLaria is a goddess.
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