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JAZZ REVIEW : Singer Julie Kelly Rises Above the Din at Spaghettini

July 21, 1994|BILL KOHLHAASE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SEAL BEACH — It's a common sight at most popular watering holes where people come to unwind after work.

A pair of women, neatly dressed, come in and stake out a corner where they indulge in an animated exchange. Naturally, they get attention from other patrons, sometimes sharing small talk and a couple of laughs with those seated nearby.

That's exactly what singer Julie Kelly and pianist Karen Hammack did Tuesday at Spaghettini, only this wasn't clock-out time for them. It was work, though you'd never think of it as that considering the way they carried on.

Their corner was the one with the piano and Kelly was singing standards with a lot of South-of-the-Border flavor. But the exchange between Kelly and Hammack was as lively as any in the room, and believe me, there was a lot of lively discussion going on.

In fact, the happy-hour holdover crowd often treated the two musicians as just another pair of patrons. If, during their first set, the two often seemed in competition with the noisy crowd, they didn't seem to care.

"We've got some songs that will go just perfectly with all the things you're talking about," Kelly announced above the din as she opened the first set. And she was right.

Kelly introduced "I've Never Been in Love Before" by explaining that she met her husband shortly after once doing the number. That seemed to make two singles sitting close by perk their ears.

From there she went on to demonstrate her fine scatting ability, taking off from the word "never" and improvising in almost saxophone-like tones with wordless syllables as Hammack supported her with softly stated chords.

Kelly, a vocal instructor at the Musicians' Institute in Hollywood who will release her second album for the Chase Music Group, "Stories to Tell," in August, proved again why she's one of the handful of Southern California female singers worthy of respect.

Working with warm, pleasant tones, she applied sophisticated rhythmic treatments to songs from Duke Ellington, Cole Porter and Johnny Mercer without reliance on gimmicks or stylistic high jinks. Each phrase was clearly enunciated and delivered in a straightforward way.

She's especially adept at Brazilian rhythms. On Luiz Bonfa's "Gentle Rain" she developed a melancholy mood inside the swaying pace, while Hammack responded with a series descending lines that swirled like an autumn mist. Cole Porter's "I Love You" was done with a samba flavor, bringing an invigorating twist to the well-worn piece. Her best efforts came on a pair of tunes from Antonio Carlos Jobim.

*

Hammack, who played earlier this year at Spaghettini with vocalist Stephanie Haynes, proved an able accompanist, tracing mere shadows of the tunes behind the singer before developing more detailed improvisations on her own.

On "Nobody Else but Me," she echoed Kelly's phrasing in call-and-response style. And no matter how long Kelly extended the conclusion of the song, Hammack followed gamely, adding just the right dynamic touch before drawing the tune to a close.

That kind of interplay was the evening's biggest reward as the women showed attention and empathy for each other's efforts. When "Nobody Else but Me" started off on the wrong rhythmic foot, Kelly laughed and said she would start again. Hammack, not missing a beat, kept the song flowing until the singer dropped in just so. Both were especially responsive as they stretched the endings of tune after tune into extended displays of teamwork.

By the time the second set began and the happy-hour hors d'oeuvres had been put away, Kelly and Hammack had become the center of attention. And they deserved to be.

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