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Singing Her Heart Out : Slow, emotional ballads are a specialty of Julie Kelly. The artist can swing but shines on moving, majestic tunes.

October 14, 1994|ZAN STEWART | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Zan Stewart writes regularly about jazz for The Times

SHERMAN OAKS — When she was a fledgling jazz vocalist in her early 20s, Julie Kelly moonlighted as a waitress at the famed San Francisco club the Jazz Workshop, and heard many of the greats: pianist Ahmad Jamal, bassist Charles Mingus, conga drummer Mongo Santamaria, and so many others.

But it was blues tunes like "Goin' Down Slow" and "Ain't Nobody's Business," sung by Jimmy Witherspoon--that barrel-voiced, jazz-influenced baritone--that really floored her.

"There was this beautiful connection between Jimmy and his audience. There wasn't a separation between the stage and the people," Kelly says. "Everybody knew what he was going to say in his songs, but they came to hear him say it. It was like he was telling their story. I feel lucky to have witnessed that kind of communication."

It's that directness that Kelly, 46, seeks when she works, as she will Saturday at Le Cafe. She says she's able to get it more often--she reveals a powerful immediacy on "Stories to Tell," her aptly titled new release on Chase Music Group Records--and that she's more comfortable being on stage as the years go by. Now she feels that she can just stand there and sing, but it's still no easy feat.

"Singing is frightening," she says in a phone conversation. "You're naked. There's no instrument in front of you, nothing separating you from the notes, just you and your skin. And what you're trying to do is subtle and vulnerable."

Kelly, an Oakland native who has been in Southern California since 1980 and who lives with her husband, Sam DiMaggio, in Studio City, says the art of singing--be it jazz or classical, the two genres she reveres--captivates her because of its totality. "You use every single part of yourself, from your toenails to your hair follicles," she says. "You breathe in and then breathe out and sing, summoning everything that you are and putting it out there."

Kelly has sung professionally since she was teen-ager. A mezzo soprano who offers a rich tonal quality that lights her intimate tales, she can swing hard--"Stories to Tell" includes walloping versions of "Surrey With the Fringe on Top," "When in Rome" and Charlie Parker's "Billie's Bounce." But it's on the ballads, the slow, somber, packed-with-emotion essays such as George and Ira Gershwin's "My Man's Gone Now" from "Porgy and Bess," that the singer is heard to advantage.

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That song--in which Bess reveals, in a mournful yet majestic lyric by Ira Gershwin, her anguish over the death of her love, Porgy--is her kind of song, Kelly says.

"If a song has a lyric that strikes me as a wonderful story, then I can sing it well," she says. "In a tune like 'My Man's Gone Now,' I can visualize the whole story before I start to sing. It's all laid out for me. It's a tale of hope and courage, and yet it's poignant and sad. So it's a story that can be told again and again. I always find something new in it, and it's worth telling again because of the beauty, the way the lyrics and melody work together."

At Le Cafe, Kelly will sing material from "Stories to Tell," and other classic jazz and pop tunes, accompanied by a group she says is "magical with a capital M": Larry Koonse (guitar), Darek Oles (bass) and Joe LaBarbera (drums). "With them, anything can happen. There's all this room when we play," she says. "It's sort of like looking into a raindrop and seeing this other world, and you can go in there and feel free. The music just kind of happens. And it felt that way the first time we played together."

Dale Jaffe, owner of Le Cafe, has long enjoyed having Kelly at his Room Upstairs. "She continued to grow, over time," he says. "It's great to hear her making such good music."

Kelly lists Thelonious Monk, Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie and June Christy among her jazz influences. She sings songs associated with Christy at radio station KLON-FM's "Jazz West Coast" bash in Redondo Beach later this month.

Kelly, who says singing has led her to find "something limitless inside," says she's constantly enchanted by the mystery of music. "It's so magical when you hear a note, and the way it actually enters your body," she says. "I don't understand it, but it seems like a miracle."

Where and When

Who: Julie Kelly.

Location: The Room Upstairs at Le Cafe, 14633 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks.

Hours: 9 and 11 p.m. Saturday.

Price: $8 cover, two-drink minimum.

Call: (818) 986-2662.

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