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One Singer's Quest : Karen Gallinger chases those moments when 'the music is doing the driving.' She says it's more apt to occur in a jazz number.

June 18, 1993|ZAN STEWART | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Zan Stewart writes frequently about jazz for The Times

The way Karen Gallinger sees it, there are basically two ways of singing: You're either on or you're off.

"When I'm not on, I rely on technique, and the whole thing is an intellectual exercise," said Gallinger, a resident of South Laguna Beach who appears tonight at Chadney's in Burbank. "It sounds OK, you might not be able to tell, but I'm in my head, self-conscious. It's like I'm the one that's driving the experience.

"But when I'm on, when it's really happening for me, singing transcends that intellectual, technical space, and I move into a completely different kind of experience, which becomes more sensual, where I'm more fully present. Then the music is doing the driving; it's speaking through me, using me as a instrument, a conduit."

You might suspect that Gallinger, who has been a professional singer for about two decades, chases those latter moments the way we return time and again to a favorite restaurant because a special dish is prepared so deliciously. And you'd be right.

"Those times are so magical that I'm always trying to find situations and environments where that can happen, or is likely to happen," the singer said.

Gallinger has discovered that although she can get into this extraordinary realm during an engagement where she delivers pop material, it's more likely to occur when she's working in her preferred genre: jazz.

"There's a constant exploration that can happen with jazz," she said. "It's challenging. It gives you a framework where there are always new possibilities."

The artist, whose contralto voice allows her to hit low, deep tones as well as high, pencil-thin ones, will take a lot of liberties with tunes in a jazz environment such as Chadney's. On a standard tune like "My Shining Hour," Gallinger might extend some lyrics as if they were rubber bands, compressing longer phrases into short temporal spaces, like a large bouquet of flowers crammed into a small vase.

These experiments result in unusual musical perceptions for Gallinger, who also can be heard Saturday and June 26 at Loew's Santa Monica Beach Hotel in Santa Monica. "When I play with the lyrics and the melody, I make new textures," she said. "Music is very sensual, sometimes to the point that I'll sense sound as spatial, as if it were square, or moving in blocks, or round and fluid."

Many who have heard Gallinger, who will be accompanied at Chadney's by the spirited pianist Cecilia Coleman, are impressed by the way she can impart gusto into a dashing evergreen like "Shining Hour" or a drop-dead blues such as "Every Day I Have the Blues." One of these commentators is bassist Luther Hughes, who has worked with Gallinger on numerous occasions in Orange County.

"Karen is super-charged, she's a ball of energy," Hughes says. "She's listened to all the greats, and she has an awful lot of talent."

Gallinger says she can belt out a number with the best of them, and she loves to do an explosive blues. "There I can vent, maybe make up lyrics, maybe to tell somebody off if I want. It's like talking to the people," she said.

But the vocalist, who was born in Venice and was raised in Huntington Beach, says she's at her strongest doing slow, intimate ballads. "In those songs you find moments of clarity and simplicity that balance the high adrenaline that comes with the energized tunes," she said. "Ballads are the other end of the spectrum, like a quiet space where you go and you breathe."

Gallinger says it's only within the past year that she has focused on singing jazz. Before, she made her living mainly singing pop tunes and teaching--she still does. But last year, she decided to take control of her life. She ended an unfulfilling nine-year relationship; she moved from Garden Grove to South Laguna Beach, and she actively sought out jazz venues. She said she feels like a new person.

"I had to do it," she said. "Jazz is what I love, what I want to do. I want to sing music that I care about to people who want to hear it. I'd rather work in a room where there's hardly anyone than in a place that's jammed but nobody's listening."

WHERE AND WHEN

What: Karen Gallinger, with Cecilia Coleman's trio at Chadney's, 3000 W. Olive St., Burbank.

Hours: 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. tonight.

Price: No cover, no minimum.

Call: (818) 843-5333.

What: Karen Gallinger, at Loew's Santa Monica Beach Hotel, 1700 Ocean Ave., Santa Monica.

Hours: 8:30 p.m. to midnight, Saturday and June 26.

Price: No cover, no minimum.

Call: (310) 458-6700

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