The Count Basie Orchestra requires a big voice with plenty of personality, something on the order of a Joe Williams or a Jimmy Rushing. Carmen Bradford, who sang with the Basie Orchestra under the direction of Frank Foster for nine years beginning in 1982 (Basie died in 1984), fit that bill perfectly.
But Bradford's big sound works equally well in smaller settings, something she proved Friday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center's Jazz Club in Founders Hall. Using the same strengths she brought to the Basie organization, Bradford, backed by a piano trio, sang blues and ballads without diminishing her considerable presence. Her control of mood and dynamics during the first show of a two-evening, two-shows-a-night appearance had an enthusiastic audience hanging on her every note.
In Bradford's favor was a world-class rhythm section responsive to her varied emotions. Respected pianist-composer Cedar Walton, capable of a big sound himself, teamed with bassist and Marsalis-family colleague Robert Hurst (who missed the first instrumental number, still en route to Costa Mesa from Burbank, where he taped "The Tonight Show" with Jay Leno) and drummer Albert "Tootie" Heath, who's been with the Modern Jazz Quartet since the death of Connie Kay in 1994. With few exceptions, the three men beautifully underscored even the most difficult of Bradford's various moods and dynamic swings.
Despite her reputation for a big sound, Bradford's best moments came during quiet numbers. She showed intimacy and range during a tender version of "Young and Foolish." Clear, even tones with a minimum of edge and vibrato allowed the beauty of the melody and its lyric to prevail.
Bradford's fondness for Ella Fitzgerald came through on her rendition of "Mr. Paganini," a song Fitzgerald used to demonstrate her scatting skills. Mirroring Fitzgerald's presentation, Bradford sang even the most difficult passages effortlessly, scatting with clarity and a smart sense of phrasing.
She got down and dirty with "Ain't No Use," a tune popularized by Basie and Williams. Her abilities as a storyteller surfaced during Walton's revenge-minded "Even Steven."
Opening without the singer, Walton displayed his amazing ability to refashion standards in his own image.
He disguised "Body & Soul" by just hinting at the melody, then circling it with riffs, flourishes and detailed, slightly twisted phrases. He played "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" with assertive phrases, sketching in the lyric and flooding the spaces between lines with a dense chordal wash.
With Bradford on the stage, Walton didn't alter his approach but continued in muscular, attention-grabbing fashion. This ploy, rather than detracting from the singer's work, proved the perfect complement to her big, delightful sound.