HUNTINGTON BEACH — Singers who have highly stylized deliveries walk a fine line between creative, skilled embellishment and overblown horseplay. Even the best of them--Nancy Wilson comes to mind--sometime overstep the boundary between what is tasteful and what is showboating.
That's why Dee Dee McNeil's first set at Maxwell's Thursday was particularly pleasing. The singer twists lyrics and bends tones with the best of them but never overdid it. During a blues-heavy set backed by bassist Jim DeJulio's trio, McNeil was playful yet completely natural as she slipped around the scales, took liberties with lyrics and brought a novel's worth of character to single, sustained tones.
Her timing is why she gets away with so much. Sliding lazily behind the pace of the Harold Arlen-Johnny Mercer tune "Blues in the Night," she brought a fresh sensuality to the familiar lyric. She brought strong, in-the-saddle phrasing to the blues she sang while still managing to inflate lines here or squeeze them there. Whether whipping through an up-tempo version of "I Get a Kick Out of You" or cuddling up to Matt Dennis' ballad "Violets for My Furs," her phrases worked as a whole, rather than as disjointed moments of decoration.
McNeil's vivacious stage presence is buttressed by the varying personalities she pulls from her voice, ranging from the vampish to the childlike. Though her best work was done in the middle range, she also worked a low, Sarah Vaughn-like warmth, as well as pixie-sweet high notes in the style of Blossom Dearie.
She has a way with spoken passages, too. Her brief introduction to Alberta Hunter's "Workin' Man," while the trio rocked on behind her, was an informative yet humorous rhythmic tribute. And during the blues-based party tune "Can't Let Your Right Hand Know What Your Left Hand Do," which tells the tale of an insatiable senior citizen, she played the comedian's role to the hilt.
DeJulio's trio, with pianist George Gaffney and the bassist's son Jimmy D on drums, provided adept if not always complementary backing. Gaffney's approach--sparer than that of Paul Smith and Wally Minko, both of whom have been heard with DeJulio in this room--gave McNeil plenty of space to stylize.
The threesome seemed especially at ease playing upbeat blues numbers, with Gaffney sometimes bringing a barrelhouse quality to his improvisations. The trio affirmed its swing credentials while warming up without the singer on "Love for Sale," a tune that showcased the bassist's firm tone and insistent walk.
One drawback to the singer-with-houseband formula was the lack of any of McNeil's original tunes. The former Motown songwriter (she penned "What Is a Man" for the Four Tops) has a reputation for engaging tunes with thoughtful lyrics in the jazz idiom but, because of the unrehearsed nature of this appearance, none was heard.
That shouldn't be the case tonight when she brings her own band to Cafe Lido in Newport Beach. In those familiar circumstances, McNeil should be able to show all sides of her musical self.
Dee Dee McNeil sings tonight at 9 and 11 at Cafe Lido, 501 30th St., Newport Beach. No cover. She also is scheduled to sing there Aug. 8 and 21-22. (714) 675-2968.