Singin' & Swingin'
With the noonday sun as her spotlight, Nancy Kelly literally glowed as she strode to the microphone. Her full-length white sleeveless gown and white-orbed earrings cast an aura of elegance, balanced by the hip informality of her white-framed shades. With her platinum coif complementing her summer tan, the vocalist cued the quartet and threw her entire muscle-toned physique into Meredith Willson's joyous ballad, "'Till There Was You."Kelly's vibrant mezzo-soprano was radiant as her appearance as she sang of those bells on the hill, and her voice rang out in unrestrained celebration.Kelly had good reason to celebrate. A full decade after her debut LP Live Jazz was released to rave reviews and Top 20 action on Billboard's jazz chart, the Sterling-based singer finally has her sophomore disc, Singin' & Swingin' (Amherst), sitting pretty in the retail bins. "'Till There Was You" serves as the album's impressive opener."I am so happy with this record," she gushes. "I feel like I have new wheels." And the hard-working vocalist has greased those wheels herself. In addition to performing as a vocalist, Kelly also performs the roles of bandleader, booking agent and publicist. She took the reins with this recording project, which spanned three months in Ferdinand Smith's new state-of-the-art Linden Oaks Studio. Kelly conceptualized, arranged and co-produced Singin' & Swingin' with a little help from jazz wizard Jeff Tyzik. She also handpicked the musicians, carefully matching each player to material that best suits his style."I knew I needed musicians who speak the same musical language as I do," Kelly explained. "I come from the old school, you know, 'It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing' kinda thing. I knew these guys could find that pocket, find that groove."So she hired people like Positive Music recording artist, saxophonist Bobby Militello to play the modern stuff, alto saxman Joe Carello to play the dreamier lines, pianist Bobby Jones to kick up the rhythm section, trumpeter Jeff Jarvis to capture an after-hours feel with his muted horn, and trad-jazz keyboardist Rod Blumenau to re-create the Fats Waller sound. Longtime friends including electric bassist Ronnie France, drummer (and VSOP recording artist) Danny D'Imperio and keyboardist Lyman Strong also worked the sessions, along with Ithaca guitarist Steve Brown and western New York rhythm makers such as acoustic bassist Paul LaDuca, and keyboardists Dino Losito and John Nyerges.Kelly's own two decades of experience are evident throughout the album, as her vocals soar over three-and-a-half octaves re-inventing standards such as the sultry "Stormy Weather," the jubilant "Joint is Jumpin'" and the boppish "Slow Boat to China." Anyone who has heard Kelly hold forth at area nightclubs or jazz festivals knows the woman can roar, but on this new album she reminds listeners that she can also purr. And she evokes unbridled passion and plaintive longing, sometimes all in the same track. The Nat King Cole number "That's All," for example, begins like a smoldering ember, but soon the singer bellows it into a blazing mid-tempo samba.Kelly proves herself a skilled interpreter, not afraid to take chances. She screams like an erotic banshee on the coda to "Slow Boat to China," for instance, then she transforms Chaka Kahn's "Through the Fire" from a chunky funk workout into a simmering ballad of personal catharthis.In New York -- where Kelly threw a CD release party Sept. 14 -- WAER-FM Jazz 88 Music Director Eric Cohen said, "The station phones have really lit up with requests for Nancy's new album, so we're playing three different cuts from it so far. It's really very well-produced and performed."Longtime local jazz fans know Kelly best for her rocket-fueled readings of tunes such as "Twisted," "Misty" and "Lady Is a Tramp," but Singin' and Swingin' remains much more down to earth. In fact, the entire album clearly reflects the sensitivity of a woman's touch -- not a glib girl singer, but a mature world-wise woman."I've toned down my style significantly because I've matured," admits Kelly, now in her mid-forties. "And a lot of things have happened in my life recently," sad things and glad things alike, she allows. And those emotions pour forth on this album. "Music should touch you somewhere," Kelly says. "It should touch you inside your mind, inside your heart, inside your soul."After becoming something of a jazz sensation in Philadelphia in the early Eighties, Kelly branched out doing television shows, playing Atlantic City casinos and touring tirelessly, even singing in far-off Singapore for an extended engagement. In 1987, Leonard Silver, president of Amherst Records, put Kelly together with big bandleader/trumpeter/producer Jeff Tyzik to make an album, Live Jazz, which included a guest appearance by Tonight Show saxophonist Ernie Watts. Shortly after the LP's release, however, Amherst experienced financial difficulties and failed to fully promote the album, even though it received airplay around the country and scored the No. 11 slot on the Billboard Jazz Chart.This time around will be different, Kelly insists. "Last month, I sat in Lenny Silver's office with all his people there and he said, 'We're not holding back. This record is great, so we're gonna go for it,'" Kelly reports. "And I'm shooting for the stars."Q: You once said that even though you make your living as a singer, you'd really rather not listen to your own voice. How can that be?A: Personally, I just don't like to listen to my own voice. I have a vibrato that I have to be careful of or it becomes overbearing. I know I have to control that. That's what was so wonderful about working with co-producer Jeff Tyzik in the studio, because Jeff knows my voice, and when it leans toward those areas where it can become too abrasive, we'd stop and he'd say, "Let's rethink your approach here." And you can hear the result when you listen to the CD. These vocals are very palatable.Q: Ten years have elapsed since the last record, and if you compare the sound of the two albums, this one is definitely a kinder, gentler Nancy Kelly. Why is that?A: It's several things: I've matured as a person, and I've matured as a musician and I'm playing with better musicians on a regular basis. Also, Jeff Tyzik produced the first record completely. He had the tunes played the way he heard them, and then I ended up basically following the band. It's not the way I would have done it. A lot of them were arrangements that I was not familiar with, and that puts a damper on your spontaneity. So invariably, I was doing a lot more scatting and a lot more winging it because I really didn't know sometimes where I was going to go, which can also be good -- it can be pretty interesting to listen to. That has its virtues. The new record, though, was very well thought out. We wanted to let a very relaxed and natural sound develop, and let the swing be king.Q: What does the term "swing" mean to you?A: That's a personal thing I would imagine, isn't it? Musically, it's a definite style. It's a definite cymbal style that's set up against a walking bass, and there's a certain place where the chords are placed. I think with swing music, what is not played -- where you put your space -- is more important than what is played. Q: On the liner notes of the new disc, you credit the development of the arrangements to a collaboration with your musicians over "many, many nights on the bandstand." How does that work?A: I'll come up with an idea one night, and then we'll just stick with that. Like that part on "Slow Boat" on the new record, where I sing, "soIwannaget, soIwannaget, soIwannaget" -- I mean it goes real quick! That happened on the bandstand one night, so we kept it. The arrangements kind of evolve, but they're mine because I think of them -- they're my ideas. Another one is the slow, jazzy version of "Through the Fire," instead of the rock-oriented version that Chaka Khan did. I just told pianist Bobby Jones that's how I wanted to do it, and we arranged it that way.Q: Who were your most important influences?A: From the very beginning, Aretha Franklin was my favorite singer. She was a real screamer and, as a kid, I just loved it. She had incredible control, incredible range and she sang from her heart. Soul music was the only kind of pop music I ever listened to. I never listened to the Top 40. I never liked much rock'n'roll, only rhythm'n'blues and soul. And of course there were the jazz influences like the big bands, Count Basie, and I was always glued to the TV whenever Buddy Rich came on The Tonight Show. And whenever they had Pete Barbuti on -- I was just amazed because he was such a great comedian, but he was also the most fantastic jazz pianist I'd ever heard. And clarinetist Pete Fountain, I was drawn to that, too. And, of course, vocalists Ella Fitzgerald and Judy Garland and Billie Holiday. I mean with me, I could tell you something about each singer that appeals to me.Q: And then does that special something comes out in your own singing?A: Not so much anymore, I don't think. I definitely have my own style, my own way of interpreting music. Probably the only person I ever copied was Aretha, and that was when I was a kid.Q: Why were you so attracted to rhythm'n'blues?A: Simply because of its honesty. Anyone who hears me knows I deal with honesty. I mean, that's what I'm about.Q: Your voice seems like such a versatile instrument. You probably could do show tunes, rock'n'roll, whatever. Why did you choose jazz?A: You don't choose jazz. Jazz chooses you.I've actively pursued this ever since I was out of high school. When I was about 17 years old, this guy wanted me to front his band, kind of a Leon Russell-style blues-rock band. I've always been able to belt it out. I used to ride around in my Volkswagen and pretend I was Robert Goulet. Holds a long Goulet-ish note. But as I was working with these guys, I never wanted to sing the melody. I didn't know what I was doing, but I was a natural -- I was improvising.This fellow Joey Santora from Buffalo saw me. He was a piano player who had just come off the road with the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra and he said, "I think you could sing jazz. I'm going to sit down with you and teach you some standards. I think you'll find that your ears will kick in and you'll find the melody." And I did. He also had me scat a little bit, which you normally can't just teach people to scat. I had that natural whatever it was.So Joey and I worked as a duo, and I sang standards for the first time in my life, tunes like "Misty" and "I Wish You Love" and all that. From there, it just blossomed.Q: Were you ever tempted to take a more commercial gig?A: I only went back to r'n'b music once, with a Rochester band called Saratoga, which was a very popular horn band. I was paired up with another singer named Oliver Wiggins. Oh, could he belt! He was just wonderful, a fabulous man and a fabulous singer, and the two of us were just magic together. The kids were lined up way down the street. But I got tired of that -- it was just so loud, and it was confining for me. I made a decision that from that point on in my career, I was going to be my own boss, I wasn't going to work for anyone else anymore. I got tired of the power struggles. It was frustrating for me because I heard things musically, but I wasn't the leader of the band, and it wasn't my place to change it. So in the late Seventies I went out on my own and became a solo artist.Q:Plenty of women singers front bands, but in many ways, you're a woman in a man's world. How does that play out for you and for other women in the music business?A: There are times when you do feel it, and you know it. There still are men, unfortunately, who are just rude. They see a good-looking woman and they make innuendos. But, you know, this is life. I find that just being courteous to everybody and not acting unladylike, just being a good person really works, and it works everywhere. I haven't had any trouble with any of the men I work with. We all get along, and they like me. It's no secret that Larry Arlotta was one of my best friends, and I'm good friends with Ronnie France, and I mean best friends -- there's no gender thing there.If anything, on the female issue, it's a plus. You cannot deny the fact that the clubs like to have a woman there. Now that I'm older, I don't get work in Atlantic City. They give it to the younger girls. But now that I'm older, people take me more seriously. There was a time when I was younger and not hard to look at that worked against me. Some people would say, "How can a girl like you be singing jazz?" I didn't fit the image that people had of a jazz singer. So being a woman -- especially a young woman -- can work against you in that fashion.Q: The first time I remember seeing you was 20 years ago at Old City Hall in Oswego, NY in a band with saxophonist Nate Levine. Was that the act that brought you to other cities?A: We called that band the Fat Cat Revue. One night my dad O.P. Kelly, to whom Singin & Swingin' is dedicated brought me to a club called Casa di Lisa out on Syracuse's Erie Boulevard and there was my friend Peter Mack playing bass and Nate Levine on sax and I sat in. Then Nate said, "I think I can get us a regular job at another club here in town." And he booked us over at Soo-Lin. For me it was a big deal, 'cause I was working in the same club where the late Spirit Jazz recording artist, keyboardist Larry Arlotta worked -- that was a big deal for me, I mean I was still a kid! And Soo-Lin manager Buddy Pynes paid us real well, and we were there for four years.Q: When you're putting a band together, what do you look for in a musician?A: There are some vocalists who sing more like an instrument. I've developed more like a singer and less like an instrument, and I require a different kind of backup now. I'm more sensitive now. I basically look for guys who listen, who can feel and express the music the way I do. So through my years and years of traveling around the state and around the country, there'd always be one guy, just one guy in the band who was playing it the way I was singing it. So I'd get his number and say, "Let's do a gig sometime." And now anyone who hears me sing with the musicians I used on this record knows that I've got four guys who all share the same interpretation.Here's a comparison. It's like taking four guys -- a Frenchman, a German, an Irishman and an Italian -- put them in a room together and ask them each to read the same sentence. They're all going to sound different -- they're not even going to understand each other -- because they each speak a different language. That's what I like about these guys who I'm working with now: They all speak the same language.Q:What's it like doing shows with a symphony orchestra? Is it different than playing a nightclub?A:It's like one day I get to eat a cream-filled chocolate eclair, then the next day I get to eat a piece of fried chicken and the next day I get to have a big bowl of fettucine alfredo -- all the best things in life, right? That symphony work, though, is really one of the lights of my life right now. To be honest, it's really boosted my self-esteem quite a bit. It's a great honor to be asked by one of the major symphonies in the country to be their soloist. Personally, I feel that I've reached a certain level of legitimacy. Hey, that's a great line! Laughs.Q: How do the symphony gigs compare with playing big jazz festivals?A: Each offers its own challenges and its own attributes. The only times I really get nervous are when I'm in front of a big crowd of people who don't know who I am. If I play the a Jazz Fest I don't get nervous because I can look out in the audience and see people who I love and they love me, and they're there for me. But when your name is announced and you go out there in front of thousands of people who don't know you, you feel like you're under scrutiny, and that's an uncomfortable feeling. Once I've sung two numbers and I've heard the applause, then -- boom boom boom -- then we're on a roll, baby. But it's tough.All the other venues are a piece of cake. I love each one for a different reason: I love the small clubs for their intimacy, where I can be close to the people, and I love the bigger venues because then I can be more demonstrative.Q: You do like to move with the music, don't you?A: I've noticed that the more pressure I'm under, the more I move. It's nervous energy. But I don't do that as much anymore. I'm much more focused than I used to be.Q: And you seem like you're scatting less. Is that a conscious thing, or do you just choose not to do that as much anymore?A: I always do one number a set where I scat. I still do that. Musicians go through all kinds of different growing processes. Maybe the next thing I'll do is go totally avant-garde. Laughs.Q: Seriously, do you find yourself moving in some new directions, artistically, maybe writing some original material?A: You walk and you walk and you walk and finally you reach the river's edge, then you say, where's the bridge? And you find it. Now is the time for me to be taking that bridge.I've written plenty of music over the years and even done some of my own songs live, but people expect to hear standards. That's what jazz singers do. I'm taking piano lessons again, from a teacher named Norma DeLucia who used to teach Larry Arlotta. And that may lead to more writing.Q: How do you approach ballads vs. uptempo tunes?A: Right now, I'm very partial to ballads. Music is a direct reflection of your life. Now in the last few years, I lost my father, I lost Larry, I lost my friend Frank Bart, who was an early supporter of mine from the Soo-Lin days. So now I'm attuned to very emotional ballads. I enjoy it.With uptempo material I'm thinking more with my head than with my heart. When I'm singing a ballad, I just let it happen. I let the Lord do His work, child!