Before her October 23, 2004 gig at the Jazz Standard, singer Nancy King hadn't played a major New York club in several years. She's never been signed to a major jazz label, although she's come close. By 2004 King had been touring regionally and internationally for four decades and jazz insiders knew who she was, even if the top labels and major festival promoters didn't.
Pianist Fred Hersch was one of those insiders. When he invited King to perform at the Jazz Standard as part of his "Duo Invitation Series the two musicians had not met and until Hersch called the first number that evening, they had not played together. "I made a list of the tunes we wanted to do, counted them off and off we went, said Hersch. Unbeknownst to King, sound engineer Martin Goodman was recording the performance. The resultant CD, Live at Jazz Standard (with Fred Hersch)
(MaxJazz, 2006), is nominated for a Grammy for best jazz vocal album this year and has already topped many best of 2006 polls.
The pair's consummate improv abilities practically guaranteed a first-rate collaboration. Hersch, with two previous Grammy nominations under his belt, has at the ready an extensive musical vocabulary and as a player moves confidently into unexpected territory. Such virtuosic playing might intimidate a lesser singer, but King demonstrates a keen intuitive understanding of musical line and form and matched Hersch in his reach. "Nancy is a natural musicianshe's not a trained musician, says Hersch of King's vocal dexterity.
King explains her musical insight simply. "I'm a mimic, says King, who grew up on a farm in Oregon, listening to and emulating jazz instrumentalists. King's parents were both musicians: her mother was a professional concert pianist before marrying her father who was a self-taught jazz pianist. King admits that she never learned to play piano well and didn't aspire to classical training. Perhaps in some disappointment to her mother, King laughs, she would "run out the door and go ride on a horse whenever Lili Pons' albums played on the family phonograph.
King started fronting her father's jazz bands at age thirteen and wanted to "have fun like [the players] did when they soloed. She noticed that most singers' solos sounded set and didn't listen to them much; Ella Fitzgerald and Anita O'Day were two of the few in whom King could hear the extemporaneous creativity of a horn player. King's early immersion in,instrumental jazz and vocal improvisation led to the development of her facile bebop styleand attention from more established jazz professionals.
In spring, 1960 King's college roommate from the University of Oregon married Pony Poindexter, then an up-and-coming alto saxophonist on the West Coast jazz scene. Poindexter invited King to perform with him in San Francisco, because "he didn't believe that anyone who milked cows at 2 am each day could sing jazz, King avows. Poindexter was convinced and King moved to San Francisco to further her career.
"I met a lot of great performers at an after-hours club where I worked, in San Francisco as a server in the early '60s, King relates. In between customers she'd get up and perform and one evening an impressed Carmen McRae approached King. "Are you serious about this or just fooling around? she asked. "Because you got it. "I was instantly afraid, King relates. "Carmen McRae was the first big person to give me a boost, to say 'Keep it upyou sound great.' I thought that if Carmen McRae thinks I'm on the right track, then I must be.
The "right track for King wasn't a straight shot to stardom or fortune. Despite an active performing schedule and the fierce respect she has garnered from peers over the years, King didn't start recording with any regularity until the '90s. After her debut album, First Date
(Inner City, 1976), King waited until 1991 to release another solo album. In the intervening years she's turned out eight subsequent ones and appeared as a guest on fourteen otherswithout major industry backing.
King has never cared. Her heart's desire, she says, has always been to be loved and admired by the general jazz community. Of this there is no question, as the list of singers and musicians who have sought her collaboration will attest. And King is generous with her talents. "One of my favorite things is to be a background singer, doing fills like a trumpet or sax and making a singer sound as good as you can, asserts King. In 2006 King performed on Karrin Allyson's Concord CD, Footprints
, also nominated for a Grammy this year in the same category as King's live recording with Hersch.
"I don't know if that's ever happened before, that one nominee sang on another nominee's album, says King. "It's pretty cool! I'm going [to the Awards] so I can hang out with Karrin and Nancy Wilson and Diana Krall and Roberta Gambarini...