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Denise King and Venissa Santi Conclude Billie Holiday Tribute at the Kimmel Center, Philadelphia

Victor L. Schermer By

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Kimmel Center's Jazz Up Close Series, 2009-2010 Season
Back in Your Own Back Yard: Billie Holiday Tribute
Denise King and Venissa Santi
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
May 1, 2010

This, the final concert in an eclectic series organized by Curator Danilo Perez and linked by the goal of honoring the memory of the great Billie Holiday, featured two fine divas, each bringing her own style and musical agenda to bear on Holiday's signature songs and each succeeding in capturing not so much Lady Day's unique sound as the way she was able to convey emotions and moods.

Denise King (pictured on left) is a seasoned jazz vocalist and a familiar figure in the Philadelphia area. Her performance took on added significance for the locals, since it was the last opportunity to hear her before she leaves the city for an indefinite time while performing in Europe. Venissa Santi, who opened for her, is a younger singer of considerable talent who has taken up residence in Philadelphia, recently releasing her first CD, Bienvenida (Sunnyside, 2008), a compilation of jazz derivatives from the perspective of her family's home country, Cuba. The contrast between the two was striking. Santi is forging a new Cuban jazz format, with an emphasis on rumba and other native rhythms. King brings with her the lively swinging tradition of Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald, with a finesse and enthusiasm second to none.
----------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Venissa Santi: vocals with John Stenger: piano, Jason Fraticelli: bass, Francois Zayas: drums and arranger, Chris Aschman: trumpet, Josh Robiuson: percussion.

Santi came on with a straight-ahead version of a Billie Holiday favorite, the popular standard "What's New," accompanied only by pianist Robert Stenger, a working member of the group Ellipsis. In this ballad Santi immediately demonstrated her artful voice and mastery of Holiday's idiom while capturing the shifting moods of a lover encountering her "ex" and trying vainly to re-start the relationship. Judging from both her performance on the recording and this concert, Santi makes sophisticated use of vocal inflections to capture the introspection of a song, an ability she shares with her friend and mentor, Joanna Pascale, another of Philadelphia's great jazz vocalists. Following this meditative lyric, she brought on the entire band for her original, "Talkin' to You," representing the Cuban/jazz synthesis that is her unique contribution to the legacy, a lively concatenation of Cuban rhythms and dissonances—and a welcome contrast to both Brazilian bossa nova and popular "salsa" music while incorporating features of both.

By integrating the Cuban idiom with jazz, Santi has at a young age already earned herself a place in jazz history, developing an approach which requires great skill to execute, not to mention the ability to impart the strong, spicy elements that electrically charge up any song. Her music calls for very gifted sidemen, and while the instrumental crew, with the exception of drummer/arranger Francois Zayas, was not the same as the superlative support on her CD, they repeatedly proved their mettle, especially pianist Stenger and bassist Fraticelli. Stenger has a very controlled approach, while Fraticelli pulls out all the stops, creating a tension of opposites that served the Cuban tautness very well. Moreover, the arrangements by Zayas captured the essence of Santi's vocal approach, energetic but held back rhythmically in a way that conveys the tension of life, the pressures which the Cuban people know all too well and which also characterize the underpinnings of American jazz.

For the duration of her set, Santi stayed with Zayas' Cuban-based arrangements of Billie Holiday classics, coming on with "You're My Thrill" featuring Aschman on trumpet, a brilliant version of "Travelin' Light," and finally "That Old Devil Called Love," with a masterful piano solo by Stenger. "Involved Again," a song which, according to Santi, Holiday intended to record but never did, was touching. "I Cover the Waterfront" was evocative of the sensuality of pre-revolution Havana Harbor. "My Man" conveyed the false hope and resignation of Holiday's version; and the concluding number, "You Better Go Now," was done sweetly and gently, with a sensitive cornet solo by Aschman.

During the intermission chat that has become an integral part of "Jazz Up Close," DJ Maureen Malloy of WRTI asked some pointed questions of Santi and King, with King confessing that she's had better breaks in Europe than her home city of Philadelphia, and Santi acknowledging some of her difficulties becoming better known period, although she is getting a good deal of radio exposure these days. The life of a jazz artist is often fraught with obstacles, and it was refreshing to hear the honesty of both these divas, instead of the usual carefully crafted clichés.

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