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Live: Kathleen Battle Does It Her Way at the Blue Note

by Carol Cooper

Kathleen Battle and Cyrus Chestnut
The Blue Note
Tuesday, June 19

Better than: Never getting to see this lyric soprano perform live.

In 2010, Kathleen Battle chose a pianist and a repertoire of classical material to bring to Carnegie Hall for a formal recital. This summer, Battle decided to give the European composers a rest and instead brought a top jazz pianist to a small Manhattan supper club to help salute the roots of American popular music. Never let it be said that Battle doesn't keep one foot firmly in two worlds: she can hold the high notes of any spiritual as if it were an aria, and bend the phrasing of a Mozart lieder as if it were a Shirley Caesar hit. But she's also taken criticism from purists over the years for her willingness to collaborate across genres and performance styles. (One can only imagine what her critics thought in 2008 of seeing Battle on the American Music Awards performing "Superwoman" with Queen Latifah and Alicia Keys.) But if her two shows this week at The Blue Note prove anything, it's that La Battle does what she wants, when she wants to do it, and Devil take the naysayers.

Tuesday night the diva was resplendent in Bulgari diamonds, a twisted chignon, and a floor-length cerulean and black gown. Her pianist, Cyrus Chestnut, came similarly correct in a charcoal suit that must have been quite toasty under the stagelights, where he vamped and avidly supported her vocals with muscular improvisation. The Berklee-trained Chestnut has partnered with Battle before, most notably on the soprano's first album of crossover material, 1995's So Many Stars. They come from similar academic backgrounds, but discovered precocious musical gifts within the black church and healthy working-class families. Everyone who has ever seen them tour together agrees that they share a powerful rapport when it comes to bringing out the hidden meaning or humor in any song.

Because the early show started a bit late, Battle dropped the last two numbers off her prepared program, replacing them with a short gospel encore. Sadly the deleted tunes were "Mood Indigo"and "Love You Madly" from a suite of Duke Ellington material the soprano had been building toward for almost an hour. (At the risk of being wrong, I'd have to say it sounded like she and Chestnut were sorting through material for a new album.) First they warmed up her voice with three spirituals (including a crafty arrangement of "Let My People Go" during which she indulged her lower register and briefly switched from English lyrics to Hebrew). Then they tackled four Gershwin tunes in succession whose bright theatrical character brought out Battle's best midrange and dramatic inflections. "By Strauss" was a clear crowd favorite, its blithe couplets making fun of snobs who think the waltz is classy but swing music is decadent.

"Keep the wine, and give me a song -- by Strauss!" chirped Battle, by now fully into the joke which also bemoans "nightclub souses" who can't enjoy the innocent charm of a waltz. Then, somewhere toward the middle of this ditty, Battle executed several perfect operatic trills and brought the house down. For Chestnut and Battle, who have each immortalized their love of Gershwin on vinyl, this was clearly the end of the warm-up section.

Following the second of three scheduled breaks ("for food service"), they segued into cabaret standards, starting with Billy Strayhorn's "Lush Life." Notoriously hard to sing, in the wrong hands this song could have crashed and burned in a spectacular way. Instead, the quirky melody (under Chestnut's sensitive chording) and its dark, serpentine verses made sense to me for the first time. This kind of material is the final frontier for any singer who wants to test their interpretive skills. If Battle were to use all her experience and training to make this particular version of "Lush Life" the centerpiece of a full album of re-imagined Ellington and Strayhorn material, I would run to purchase that recording.

Juxtaposed against "Lush Life" two of the three standards that followed -- "Tenderly" (dedicated to Rosemary Clooney) and "My Favorite Things" -- became wan, innocuous jingles. Only Hoagy Carmichael's "Skylark" came close to matching the Strayhorn tune in subliminal impact, pouring out of Battle's golden throat with Streisand's power and Garland's pathos. The best part that was salvaged from the truncated Ellington section was a tone poem called "Heaven" from Sacred Concert No. 2. Battle gave this piece a Delphic reading clarified by piano work so subtle that you felt the Spartan beauty of what Chestnut wasn't playing as much as the Apollonian beauty of what he played. Clearly the Ellington catalog is calling this duo to ransom jewels out of the vaults of memory. Here's hoping they heed the call.

Critical bias: What impresses me more than all of her Grammys is that Battle taught fifth and sixth grade music in public school before her career took off in the 1970s.

Overheard: "I never thought she'd play a jazz club. I'm just a big opera fan." Female tourist from California sitting at the bar.

Random notebook dump: Battle coughed a bit before the second song of her set and might have been fighting a cold. During the warm-up section, her aspirated vowels and harsher consonants seemed to hurt on the way out. The sass and "girlish glee" I've seen other critics remark upon in Battle's performances first peeked out from behind the gown and diamonds during the showtune "I Got Rhythm." There and on "The Man I Love" you could hear her sounding more loose and flexible, encouraged by a piano played in that relaxed yet somehow grandiose way that is quintessentially Gershwin.

Set list:

  1. Hush
  2. Go Down, Moses
  3. Wade in the Water
  4. 'S Wonderful
  5. I Got Rhythm
  6. The Man I Love
  7. By Strauss
  8. Lush Life
  9. Skylark
  10. Tenderly
  11. My Favorite Things
  12. Heaven (from Sacred Concert No.2)
  13. It Don't Mean a Thing [piano solo]
  14. In a Sentimental Mood
  15. (This Joy I Have) The World Didn't Give It to Me

Published in: Village Voice, June 20, 2012