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August 26, 1986|DON HECKMAN

Susannah McCorkle is an enigma. Described as the best new jazz singer of the '80s, and a self-identified follower of Billie Holiday, she seems to have few of the qualities generally associated with jazz vocalizing.

Her Los Angeles debut Sunday night at the Vine St. Bar & Grill revealed a fairly cool-sounding voice edged with a tremulous vibrato, a somewhat dated sense of jazz phrasing that placed rhythmic accents into the dead center of the beat, and a feel for harmonic variation that generally was limited to the choice of major seventh and ninths as closing notes.

Not exactly the stuff of which great jazz singing is made.

But the enigma lies in the fact that these uncertain technical skills and quirky delivery didn't prevent McCorkle from delivering a convincing performance. Her deep understanding of lyrics, coupled with the easy skills of a born actress made almost everything she sang come vividly to life.

She was at her best in the ballads: "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," introduced with a mood-setting description of the song's role in the movie "Roberta"; Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Otra Vez," sung in both the lyrical Portuguese original and the more mundane English version; and "There's No Business Like Show Business," done, incredibly, as a smoothly sensuous waltz.

Three brighter-tempoed songs were equally satisfying: "The Trolley Song," done with full command of its story, despite a brisk tempo; "At Long Last Love"; and Noel Coward's naughty "Let's Do It" (although McCorkle omitted some of the more pointed verses Coward used in his own performances of the piece).

The key in unraveling the McCorkle enigma, obviously, is to forget about labels. Great white jazz hope she is not, nor, I expect, does she want to be. But she is a brilliant performer of a diverse range of American popular songs. And that's not enigmatic at all.

McCorkle continues at the Vine St. through Thursday.

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