The respected, yet underrated, jazz singer is on the charts with two CDs. She appears on Karrin Allyson’s No. 1 album, Footprints, and King’s own Live at Jazz Standard was recently No. 23 on the charts and climbing.
The success is an overdue nod to an artist who has been around for years, earning an underground reputation for her free-spirited improvisational skills, but never quite reaching the lofty peaks of some other singers. "I’m not really involved in the big scene, but in a strange way I am," King said.
Her biggest fans have been other jazz musicians, including pianist Fred Hersch, who recently invited King to perform with him as part of his "Duo Invitation Series" at New York’s Jazz Standard. The series features Hersch performing with different duo partners each night.
When looking for a singer to appear, he called on King. He warned her that they wouldn’t have time to rehearse, a situation that didn’t faze her. "I said, ‘Don’t worry. Just show me the tunes. If I know them, just play them and I’ll join you. That’s exactly what happened," said King, who recently turned 66.
The appearance was the first time that Hersch and King had played together. It was also King’s first appearance in the city in years, so fans were coming from far and near. Hersch must have known something special was going to take place because he secretly asked house sound engineer Martin Goodman to record the night’s sets. "He knew better than to tell me," King said. "I’m always a little nervous before I sing. But, I’m confident in myself. I know what I can do."
These unexpected live recordings from the Jazz Standard performance make up King’s new MaxJazz album. If she had known the sets were being recorded, listeners may have heard a different show. "You would have heard a more careful me," King said. "I wouldn’t have spoken out so much. We weren’t able to use some of the selections because there was so much conversation going on. I was so relaxed that by the second set, I was noodling along with Fred. We were talking back and forth during the tune. I would holler out, ‘Yeah, Fred, yeah.’ If I had known I was being recorded, you would have heard something different because I would have been on guard, if you know what I mean. I wouldn’t have been as free and feeling as free as I was on that recording. I was just trying to do my best with Fred at that moment."
The two sound as if they have been playing together for years on the wide-ranging, nine-track CD that includes the standards "I Fall In Love Too Easily," "There Will Never Be Another You," and "Autumn in New York." The duo stretch each song with confident solos, adding texture and nuance to the familiar numbers.
King likes to play in a variety of settings, but the intimate duo format is one of her favorites. "It might be the hardest, but it’s also the most satisfying," she said. "It’s just the two of you."
King credits Hersch for their instant chemistry. "There’s not a lot of people that you can trust to call up and just fly in and do this gig with you and not rehearse," she said. "It was quite a wonderful thing for him to do for me. All of the accolades that I am getting have come from this gig and from people hearing the music and loving it."
King isn’t your typical jazz star. She lives in the Pacific Northwest, has never had a booking agent and helps rescue animals with her local humane society. She even admits to not owning a microwave oven, preferring a traditional oven.
King grew up in Eugene, Oregon, and when she was 14 years old, she saw Ella Fitzgerald perform. "There was nothing in Eugene, but me," King said with her typical humor. "I’m sure she came just for me, so I could change my life and know what I was going to do."
Both of her parents played piano. Her mother was a classical concert pianist, and her father was a jazz player. "If my mom wasn’t playing, my dad was," she remembered. "I had the best of both worlds."
King grew up listening to "Jazz at the Philharmonic" records and idolizing Slim Gaillard. She learned a bounty of songs as a youngster, including the timeless "Ain’t Misbehavin’," which is one of the highlights of the new CD. "I think Fats Waller was my dad’s favorite piano player," King said. "I grew up listening to all of Fats Waller’s tunes and learning them. I’ve known ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’’ long before the Broadway show came out. I’ve been singing those songs my whole life."
King, who will be performing throughout the summer, has often been called a risk-taker. When asked about the term, she only needs a moment to ponder what it means to her. "The risk is just going for it and not worrying about what’s going to happen," she said. "You can’t worry about it, especially with improvising. You can’t think about it. I’ve always taken those chances with my music."
That’s just what happened on "Live at Jazz Standard."