Nancy Kelly Sings at Bar 55 in New York City
The Bar that Billy Holiday Made Famous
by Greg Henry Waters
May 19, 2005 - The bar was quiet, respectful, and the audience was so wonderful. I know Nancy had something to do with the audience attitude, but some how I think the layout of the club made this setting so peaceful too. Just getting back from China and Mexico, after five years, experiencing other cultures and ways of life. I could not believe how wonderful the audience was at this bar. Besides Nancy singing so wonderfully in her duet with Sarah Jane Cion, pianist/composer, the audience was so wonderful, too.
This combination makes for great listening and enjoyment of the music. When I was in Mexico and China people did not really listen to the music very much; they were more into eating and talking to their friends, but they just listened for short periods of time. So, the duet between the audience and the performer is so important too for real music to take place. Bar 55 had a great audience besides great performers. China and Mexico do not have a tradition of jazz like we do in this country is what I learned being in other countries and cities. Even when I listened to Chinese Music it was very difficult for me to understand. I came to the conclusion that music needs an audience that knows the music too.
When I first heard Nancy sing I could only think of the some of the former singers I had worked for like, Ella, Diana Ross, Mel Torme, Jack Jones, etc. and I was wondering were the big band was? Nancy was doing all of this without a big band and giving the same high quality performance that one gets with a large ensemble with all the push and punch of a big band.
The set started out with Sarah creating a piano sonata from the tune "Body and Soul." It was not a solo like you hear with the melody and then you solo. This solo was very interesting because Sarah just played her harmony from the tune and improvised it in almost a classical style. (Sarah just published a harmony book for jazz pianist by the way) Sarah Cion has her own way of performing harmonic styles; she is not a copycat artist. It was not a jazz tune or it was not a classical piece. It was Sarah improvising. The sad part about the piece is that it wasn't on a grand piano that was in tune. It is a wonder how musicians live without the proper equipment to sell their music. Great musicians usually play great, but sometimes the problems of the place, sound system and audiences create big problems for the performer and the music is lost somewhere.
Then, Nancy came on the floor and they did the variety of jazz tunes and standards that Nancy sings. From what I could see her book has about 200 songs in it that she picks and chooses doing her performance. You see, this was not a formal concert, just two friends getting together and playing music. You know this was the kind of style format Mozart introduced his piano sonatas in small concerts like this in people's home. Well folks, it is still going on here in New York City.
Let me talk about Nancy's voice for a minute. You know when I met Nancy I was introduced by Sarah as a musician and Nancy asked me what instrument I play and the usual answer is saxophone, but I am really a clarinet and flute performer. So, the punch line hear is that Nancy played the clarinet and she told me she worked very hard on the instrument before she became a singer. Then I noticed how she used her voice, which was the most interesting part of this discussion. For me, she was still playing the clarinet except she was using her voice. She shaped her mouth and held the microphone in different positions like it was a statute. She was looking for the correct position to get the sound she wanted out of her voice. She was really into jazz sounds not just her voice which for me was very moving. Most singers are just interested in their voice not the sounds of jazz or tone quality that one gets from being an instrumental musician. My point is Nancy viewed her voice as an instrument and not just as a singer singing a song.
This became really clear when I sat in with my clarinet. Nancy and I traded some fours with Sarah and was it ever fun. Nancy was having so much fun, I thought she might fall over from all her moment of her body and she was turning around from me to Sarah and the audience. The audience of course loved this and we all got a lot of attention from them. Of course, a third instruments added another dimension and dept to the performance which was much appreciated by the audience. There I go again giving the audience a plug. Well folks, as far as I am concerned, they really deserved it.
I hope the next time you go to a concert or a jazz event you can control yourself like this audience did.
Well, the highlight of the set for me was when Nancy and Sarah did a ballad together. It was simply wonderful. Doing uptempo tunes just with piano is not as effective when there could be a bass or drum with the duet. Not that I did not enjoy the up tempo tunes - I just thought how much better it could have been with a larger group.
Well folks, check out the Bar 55 website and find out when Nancy will be there again it is certainly worth the trip to hear one of America's great gazz singers. Nancy took all these tunes and made them in to her own songs which all great jazz singers do. You know a lot of these great singers have gone to the promised land, but we still have Nancy here still creating the traditions of jazz singing.
Greg Henry Waters New York, NY