Stacey Kent, Ruth Brown
January 1, 1970Two stories this week in the Boston Globe ...
Stacey Kent gives taste of her happy vocals
By Bill Beuttler, Globe Correspondent | May 7, 2004
The outstanding new vocalist Stacey Kent rolled into town for a gig last night at Scullers with her drumless, four-piece backing band last night, having played Carnegie Hall with Michael Feinstein the night before.
A native New Yorker, Kent moved to England to study at Oxford several years back, met and married her saxophonist, Jim Tomlinson, and has put out a half-dozen highly regarded albums since, the most recent of which, "The Boy Next Door," she drew much of her material from in the first of her two sets in Boston.
First off, promisingly in more ways that one, was "The Best Is Yet to Come," which introduced the nearly full house to Kent's rich but to-the-point vocals (no pointlessly pop-diva-esque turning of one syllable into four for this gal) and eye-contact intimacy, backed mostly by Pat O'Leary's upright bass and some smart piano fills from Dave Newton.
"The Trolley Song," also from the new CD, came next, and featured a burning solo from guitarist Colin Oxley that -- like the wistfully laconic backing he provided elsewhere through the set -- was reminiscent of Billie Holiday's sometime accompanist Barney Kessel.
"They Say It's Wonderful" was up third, and Tomlinson -- a tenor player of the Lester Young school -- took a slow, soulful, breathy solo on it that complemented his wife's singing beautifully and that staked out his own worthily distinct claim to the piece. (No small achievement, remember, as John Coltrane had been here with Johnny Hartmann before.) That his wife and he, both onetime aspiring academics, clearly pay close attention to a song's lyrics was especially evident here.
Kent, clad in a red dress, paused to introduce the band at this point, then launched into another standard from the new CD, "People Will Say We're in Love," followed by a stride piano intro to "Day In, Day Out," which also included solos from Newton and Tomlinson.
Kent announced her next tune, a request, by noting that, "At 17, I had my heart massively broken." She paused for effect before adding, "I'm over it."
That was the setup for her most affecting ballad of the evening, the Billie Holiday-associated heart-breaker "I Got It Bad and That Ain't Good."
Kent's stage presence generally projects great confidence, but her voice was appropriately vulnerable here.
She started snapping her fingers for something uptempo next; a man in the audience impressed her by correctly guessing it was "Too Darn Hot," from the new CD. She followed it with a couple of Cole Porter chestnuts, a bossa nova from her husband's CD "Brazilian Sketches," and Dizzy Gillespie's cheerily nonsensical love ditty "Ooh-Shoo-Be-Doo-Bee," the guys in the band helping out with backing vocals.
Kent called out to her "Too Darn Hot" pal to guess what was up next as she sang the line about Kensington Avenue, and he guessed that too, the title tune wrapping up a delightful set.
No matter the genre, Brown's voice carries
By Bill Beuttler, Globe Correspondent | May 7, 2004
Ruth Brown, who opened a three-night stand at the Regattabar last night, is the original queen of R&B. If it wasn't for her, "there wouldn't be no Aretha," opined Stevie Wonder in a blurb for "Miss Rhythm," Brown's 1996 autobiography.
But Brown is also happy -- and amused -- to be considered a jazz singer. "That's real funny," she says, chuckling over the phone from her home in Las Vegas. "I've been recording now since 1948 . . . and the only time in my career that I've ever gotten a Grammy, I got it for an album called "Blues on Broadway" -- a jazz album. I've never gotten anything for R&B."
Anything, that is, but the couple of dozen hit singles she recorded for Atlantic Records from the late 1940s to the 1960s, among them her trademark "Mama He Treats Your Daughter Mean." Some of her other accolades and achievements include a 1988-89 Tony award for best actress in a musical for "Black and Blue"; her induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993; and Grammy nominations in the traditional blues category for "R&B = Ruth Brown" (1998) and "A Good Day for the Blues" (2000).
There were plenty of harsh setbacks, too. Four years ago, she suffered a stroke that temporarily robbed her of speech. Brown bounced back after some struggles, though, and put on an emotional comeback performance a year ago at the Regattabar. A jazz club may seem an unusual comeback venue for an R&B queen until one considers some of the musicians Brown knew and performed with early on -- on tenor sax alone: Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Gene Ammons, John Coltrane.
"I was in a box as an R&B singer all these years," Brown, 76, says, "but I was able to sing practically everything. The only thing I never did, I was never crazy enough to try to scat. I knew Ella Fitzgerald. I promised her, never in life would I do this." She laughs. "Dizzy Gillespie told me that I could hear pretty good, I could sing anything I hear. So I guess they've allowed me to call myself a jazz singer, because I've worked with all the great jazz people."
Brown says she was friends with "all the great ladies -- Ella, Sarah [Vaughan], Dinah [Washington], Carmen McRae -- everybody. The great singers -- Nat Cole, Billy Eckstine -- all of them were kind to me, and everybody told me what to do and what not to do."
The best lesson of all came courtesy of one of Brown's early idols, Billie Holiday. Brown was playing a double bill with the folk singer Josh White at the Greenwich Village club Cafe Society one night in the early '50s when Holiday, a friend of White's, showed up in the audience. Brown, thinking she was paying tribute, overhauled her set list to include every Holiday-associated song she knew.
Holiday wasn't amused and stormed away from her table mid-show. She was backstage when Brown wrapped up her set and came offstage.
"I had to go past her," recalls Brown a half-century later. "I was almost crying, so she said, `What's wrong with you?' And I said, `Oh, nothing, Miss Holiday.' She said, `You don't have to say "Miss" to me. Let me explain something to you.' And she looked straight in my face, and she held my hand and said, `You know what? Someday you're going to be a good singer. I can tell that. But every time you go out on the stage and do what you just did, people will call my name. But they will never know yours .' "
"It was the best advice that I ever had," says Brown, who still sings Holiday staples in concert but makes sure she puts her own stamp on them.
Not all the leading figures in jazz immediately accepted Brown. She recalls Miles Davis having "raised sand" about sharing a bill with an R&B singer when the two were booked together at the Apollo Theatre, until Cannonball Adderley and Tadd Dameron persuaded their irascible boss to hear her first. Afterward, she says, Davis conceded, "You're pretty good after all."
Few quibble today over Brown's jazz bona fides. Victor Goines, who now directs jazz studies at Juilliard, performed in the orchestra pit for "Black and Blue" and on both of Brown's Grammy-nominated blues albums. "Ruth Brown as a singer, like Duke Ellington used to say, is `beyond category,' " Goines says. "My experience of playing with Ruth Brown helped me get to where I am today. It was just like school in and of itself."
Dick Hyman, who has been music director on 11 Woody Allen films and who was the pianist at Cafe Society the night of Brown's run-in with Holiday, considers Brown "a very good jazz singer." He also agrees with Goines about her transcending genres.
"It's all the same with her," he says. "Soul, pop, real blues -- it's all Ruth."
Ruth Brown continues her stand at the Regattabar tonight and tomorrow night; two sets nightly, at 7:30 and 10; tickets $22 tonight, $24 on Saturday; 617-876-7777.
© Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company