Stacey Kent: Artful Simplicity


A soft, silvery piano carpets the first verse of Stacey Kent’s “It Might as Well Be Spring” (Rodgers & Hammerstein). Establishing intimacy rarely found in jazz/cabaret rooms, her refined voice is backed by a gentle, midtempo arrangement. Saxophonist Jim Tomlinson bends his knees and folds forward, closing his eyes. “They Can’t Take that Away From Me,” she sings (George and Ira Gershwin) —I miss the verse—again beginning with only piano…then brushes/percussion, bass, and sax. A foxtrot. Kent sways slightly during the musical break smiling sweetly at her husband (Tomlinson). The affection and appreciation is palpable.

“… this next song was written for me by Ishiguro/Tomlinson (novelist, Kazuo Ishiguru). They write these very, very sad songs but always full of hope. I’m pulled apart and put back together again,” Kent says. “Postcard Lovers” is a story samba about a couple who start by corresponding often, then fall away but never fully. It amazes me some/The way we’ve become/Such postcard lovers/Divided by the ocean and years. The elegant simplicity of the lyrics suit her like second skin. It’s as if she were wistfully talking, or sending her thoughts across the sea in a bottle. “The Ice Hotel” (Ishiguro/Tomlinson) is a quirky piece, both lyrically and musically, invariably eliciting smiles. A romantic getaway in Eskimo gear?! The Bahamas are all booked up/It’s just as well… Kent is twinkling.

A rendition of “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?” requested on Facebook (Michel Legrand) is performed with unaccustomed gravity. Oh, let me be the one to hear/The silent wisssshhhh you make…Kent is a mistress of the eloquent, unexpected pause. Notes are allowed to settle, to rise and fall. I can recollect no one else who creates such ethereal space. Tomlinson contributes lovely, long phrases.

“I’m very partial to the bossa nova,” Kent says, taking a chair with her guitar. João Gilberto, with whom she fell in love at fourteen (remember “Getz/Gilberto?”) is her “greatest musical hero.” In an effort to not only sing but understand the psyche behind the songs, Kent has spent the last few summers at Middlebury College taking Portuguese. “It has quite simply changed my entire life,” she declares, “rhythmically, harmonically, and poetically.” We’re treated to the familiar “Corcovado” and “Dreamer” (both, Antonio Carlos Jobim) in English and to “Coracao Vagabundo” (Caetano Veloso) in Portuguese. Another example of  “sadness and joy at the same time.” Hands caress the piano. The bass solos in stage whispers. Kent’s delicate timbre is gossamer.

From Portuguese, we move to French. (Kent’s latest CD, “Raconte-Moi” (Blue Note/EMI) is in French). “To be happy is what we’re all looking for,” she says introducing “A Man and a Woman” (Francis Lai/Pierre Barouh). Like Barouh’s own version, this is a samba. Unlike those preceding, its arrangement evokes Carnival much like the Antonia Carlos Jobim/Luis Bonfa soundtrack for “Orfeu Negro” (Black Orpheus), which the singer vividly recalls. Kent abandons her stillness to the contagious rhythm. Drums come to dance with lots of sticks and cymbals; a terrific solo has heads bobbing and feet tapping. Sound swells with the spiraling sax, then gradually diminishes as if the parade were moving down a wide dirt road.

The iconic “Waters of March,” which Antonio Carlos Jobim wrote in both English and Portuguese, serves as encore. Every word is enunciated, every sound quiet. It’s an easy, understated interpretation. Kent even manages to make consonants fall like petals. Tomlinson plays soprano saxophone. It ends with a whistle. “Yes,” one thinks getting up from the table, “definitely yes.”

Stacey Kent at Birdland
Stacey Kent, Vocals
Jim Tomlinson, Musical Director, Tenor Sax
Gordon Johnson, Bass
Phil Hey, Drums
Graham Harvey, Piano

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