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It's not easy to stand out as a female jazz singer. Even though jazz singing is not exactly a mass market commodity, singers are nearly as ubiquitous as Harleys at Sturgis. It takes a little something to stand out from the crowd. Like at Sturgis, bigger and louder won't necessarily do the trick. It might take a little finesse, a little nuance, maybe a bit of panache. If you add all that together and mix in some genuine creativity, you'll probably come up with something that's worth seeking out among the other sound-alike hogs, er, uh, singers. [Editor's note: No, our reviewer is not calling female jazz singers "hogs," that's a slang term for Harley Davidson motorcycles. So settle down, OK? We'll continue to work with him on his metaphors.] If you find all those qualities in a female jazz singer, you may have found Lisa Engelken.
Thursday night at Dazzle, Engelken (accent on the first syllable) veered across a wide emotional spectrum so broad it could serve as a case study for manic depression. From joy to sadness to nonchalance and numerous points in between, Engelken bared her soul on stage. She put it on the line in the context of jazz standards that she arranged for herself. Time and again, she came up with a fresh look at those old chestnuts. "Caravan" was a highlight and a case in point. Her arrangement of that one started off slowly, almost like a tone poem. Eventually, the pace increased to a gentle swing in 3/4 time and finished with an extended jam in 7/4 time. Not exactly your father's Ellington.
"Afro Blue" was another highlight, this one in 5/4 time (mostly). That tune is usually performed in 3/4 or 6/8 time, so her arrangement was like putting a new coat of paint on your bedroom. Engelken is a Joni Mitchell fan and she performed both "Twisted" and "Centerpiece," jazz standards in their own right, but songs which Mitchell put her own stamp on. With these tunes, Engelken trod fairly close to the Mitchell versions, but still left her definitive mark by elongating her vowels, adding dramatic facial expressions and using body language to help convey her message.
Engelken is a scatter; as in scat singing. Like jazz standards that have been performed by countless singers, scatting is as commonplace as a Harley at Sturgis. [Editor's note: as we said, we're working with the reviewer on his metaphors. Please be patient.] She uses a percussive, rhythmic style that is both playful and inventive. (Chicken in the barnyard, scat, scat, scat.) And speaking of percussion, inspired perhaps by the warm evening, she took off her shoes part way through the set and ended up using one of them as a percussion instrument, slapping it against her hand.
Her current album Caravan features most of the tunes she played Thursday night with the exception of the Joni Mitchell tunes. Those are replaced on the CD by another Mitchell song, "Trouble Child" from Mitchell's classic Court and Spark album. Caravan sports some additional clever and unique arrangements including Freddie Hubbard's "Red Clay," renamed here "From the Earth" with lyrics by Engelken. And breaking from the jazz standard motif, she also covers "White Wedding," a favorite of classic rock radio stations when performed by its composer, Billy Idol who is not exactly a common source for jazz cover material.
The band Thursday evening consisted of local players Gabe Mervine, trumpet, Steve Denny, piano, Marty Kenny, bass and Ben Waters on drums. The backing quartet ably supported the singer and swung through Engelken's unique arrangements. Mervine constructed several solos that were more cerebral than shrill. The propulsion provided by the band gave Engelken the kind of freedom you get riding on the back of a Harley headed toward Sturgis.
Set List: "We'll Be Together Again," "Just One of Those Things," "Canto de Ossanha," "Afro Blue," "Caravan," "Twisted," "Detour Ahead," "Centerpiece," "Encore," "East of the Sun"
I love jazz because anything is possible; it has few rules and the best jazz breaks those ones. I prefer free improv because it doesn't really have any rules at all.
I was first exposed to jazz in my teens (in the late sixties).
The first jazz record I bought was Filles de Kilimanjaro by Miles Davis, shortly followed by Extrapolation by John McLaughlin.
My advice to new listeners is to listen as widely as possible and not to make snap judgments--stick with it.