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With the Kids | MUSIC REVIEW

A children's chanteuse

Jessica Harper, jazz songstress and mom, has a sophisticated way with the younger set.

October 28, 2004|Lynne Heffley | Times Staff Writer

Good or bad, children's singer-songwriters usually fit into one or more of these categories: playful, funky, hip, bubbly, folky or teacherly. Jessica Harper, who is very good indeed, is also something entirely different: elegant.

Her vocals are sophisticated and jazz-savvy, her full alto is creamy smooth, she shapes her quirky lyrics with warmth and wit and makes notable use of varied rhythms and multi-track harmonies. Her CDs, which have earned raves from parenting organizations and music critics, rank with the best children's music.

Two weeks ago, this exceptional artist, who hasn't done much live performing, began a weekly series of matinee shows in an unexpected setting: the Fountain Theatre, one of Hollywood's established smaller live theaters. The space is a good fit and the gig, an unusually extended one for a children's artist, goes through mid-December.

At her opening concert, Harper was a slim, black-suited presence -- more cabaret chanteuse than kids' singer. She had to overcome an initial tentativeness before she fully connected with the audience, which was, by the way, at least half adults.

But she didn't need funny costumes or bouncy choreography to draw them in. Singing lead to her stunning harmonic tracks, Harper settled into a gentle, witty set of songs, many from her newest CD, "Hey, Picasso." Between songs inspired by Van Gogh and Monet, her personal warmth emerged in engaging exchanges with the audience and with her standout accompanist, percussion master Mike Tempo, founder of the world-beat Bonedaddys.

Tempo, who has performed on all seven of Harper's CDs, provided a range of dynamic beats on an elaborate array of chimes, bells, triangles and multiple skin and metal drums.

"Everybody wants to play at Mike's house," Harper told the beguiled audience, while Tempo moved from one instrument to another. "He's got the coolest toys in the neighborhood."

Harper played drums and shakers too, off and on, and invited audience volunteers to join her in one lively number and pick up plastic shakers shaped like fruits and vegetables -- "Let's hear it for the produce section!"

Her long career includes costarring roles in "Hair" on Broadway and "It's Garry Shandling's Show" on TV, and films such as "Stardust Memories," "My Favorite Year," "Pennies From Heaven" and, more recently, "Minority Report."

So, yes, Harper has earned her professional polish, but her work for children is also informed with the keenly observed experiences of a mom with two daughters; her lyrics soar and dance with her music in an all-embracing celebration of childhood, parenthood and life.

In Harper's world, a "Girlquake" is "big trouble in a small pair of shoes." Life is wonderful when "there's a bluebird on my shoulder, there's a baby on my knee, there's a treasure in my pocket, there's an angel in my tree."

And she offers some words to live by: "Never tell a lousy joke or cheat when you play poker, or if you do don't tell your mother, you will just provoke her."


Jessica Harper

Where: Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., Hollywood

When: 2 p.m. Saturdays

Ends: Dec. 11

Price: $12

Info: (323) 663-1525

Running time: 50 minutes

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