When Morgan James sang, sound showered down over the heads of a transfixed audience. My scalp tingled and my friend and I gaped at each other, becoming giddily aware of being in the presence of massive talent. Le Poisson Rouge is a place I’ve come to dance to the electronica of edgy DJs; recently I had the far more breathtaking experience of the bombshell performer’s first, brilliant solo concert in this dramatic space.
With unfaltering control over her voice and her audience, Morgan strode, swelled, tiptoed, and flittered through an eclectic set from Nina Simone classics, to a reinvention of a Kelly Clarkson hit, a beautiful piece by a songwriter friend, and much more. Pure vocal athleticism carried her through the 90-minute performance on a smoky stage lit in primary colors. I spoke with Morgan two mornings after the concert; she breathed that she was “still coming down off the high” of the show’s success, a culmination of efforts from many talented people.
A solo concert debut isn’t even close to the limits of what’s on James’ calendar these days. She’s just wrapped up her first Broadway stint in The Addams Family and is headed to Tampa for the first run of Broadway-bound Wonderland – A New Alice. In February, she’ll return to her Astoria apartment (where she appreciates having her own outdoor space) for five weeks “off.” Of course, she’s planning quite a lot of work during the down time, including a few more solo performances—I strongly advise you take the opportunity to catch her show then.
James’ career trajectory is wonderfully organic; she grew up with a down-to-Earth, Idaho family nurturing aspirations to become a veterinarian. However, the very first time her grandparents heard her sing, they recognized her unique talent and promised they’d fund voice lessons for as long as she wanted them. Who knows whether they envisioned her musical education progressing all the way to The Juilliard School?
A classically trained soprano, James’ voice features supple, warm undertones that make it so adept at reinventing soulful, rock, and pop tracks. A boundless creative force, she’s currently very into a new funky sound she developed with percussion-only accompaniment. She played with the idea a bit at the show, and the result was a haunting, punctuated, and minor key sound that hung in the air like silk.
There’s ample evidence that beautiful, charismatic, and well-spoken James’ is embarking on a galactic solo career. With experience from musicals to television (you may recognize her from funny TJ Maxx or Toyota commercials), James commands a tremendous stage presence and possesses perfect comedic timing. She often made her audience laugh between songs, a welcome and near cathartic feeling amid an extraordinarily intense show. And as a true stamp on the passport to stardom, musical critics love comparing her to singers from Eva Cassidy to Aretha Franklin.
Keep an eye on James’ site for performance dates in February. The performance I saw will soon become available as an album including titles like Nat King Cole’s “Baby Baby, All the Time,” Elvis Costello’s “Almost Blue,” and U2’s “So Cruel.”
Jawbreaker: The Musical
At the Canal Room, 285 West Broadway
9 p.m. Sunday, December 12, 2010
Morgan will be a featured guest
with Jim Barbour at Birdland
7 p.m. Monday, December 13, 2010