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Deborah Brown proves she’s KC's premier jazz vocalist

By BILL BROWNLEE
Special to The Star

As one of the cradles of jazz, Kansas City has been home to dozens of renowned jazz vocalists.

Singers still dominate the listings at area jazz clubs.

Deborah Brown is not among them.

While she’s based in Kansas City, the majority of Brown’s bookings are overseas.

Her occasional appearances in Kansas City, consequently, are special events.

A near-capacity audience greeted Brown on Saturday at the Blue Room.

“I’m glad to be home,” Brown said, noting that she’d recently concluded a tour of Sweden.

During three masterful sets, Brown demonstrated that her artistic vision and musical assuredness are rivaled by very few vocalists in Kansas City or elsewhere.

Exuding a radiant sense of joy, Brown offered a shared sense of celebration. Her welcoming nature belies her imposing voice. A magisterial instrument, Brown’s voice dives, swoops and soars with astonishing clarity.

With a voice powerful enough to fill the venue without amplification, Brown used her microphone to add intriguing sonic embellishments. The rare technique is also employed by Marilyn Maye, another vocalist with a deep connection to Kansas City.

While Brown mimicked muted brass with childlike glee on “Gee, Baby, Ain’t I Good To You,” there’s nothing base about her approach. The rhythmic complexity of her phrasing on material such as “Centerpiece” makes familiar songs seem fresh.

She invested Gershwin’s “’S Wonderful” with inventive inflections and previously unimagined dynamics. While constantly compelling, Brown’s singing is intellectually rigorous and endlessly creative.

Performed by less competent artists, vocalese can seem like an insufferable novelty.

Brown’s flawless flow of syllables as she scats, however, isn’t the least bit mannered.

Brown sang very few notes that sounded out of place or anything other than what she intended.

Yet Brown’s technical precision didn’t come at the expense of emotional resonance.

Brown’s gorgeous rendition of “Moody’s Mood for Love” was a transfixing statement of purpose, while an elegant version of “A Hundred Dreams From Now” was spellbinding.

Such rarefied heights were achieved with the sympathetic support of saxophonist Matt Otto, organist Everette DeVan and first-call drummer Mike Warren.

Since Otto’s arrival in Kansas City in 2009, he has become a fixture on the area’s jazz scene. While he’s celebrated for his sense of adventurousness, Otto was cast against type in the role of a soulful tenor player Saturday.

Although Brown hadn’t previously worked with this lineup, the band quickly picked up on her cues. “I’ve never done it before with a small group,” Brown explained in her introduction to “Silver Blues.” “So we’ll see how it goes.”

It went extraordinarily well. At the song’s conclusion, Brown playfully raised her hands in triumph.

In another era, such delightful mastery would have been applauded by a vast audience. Yet only a couple dozen faithful fans were on hand when Brown’s third set concluded after midnight.

No matter.

Brown had proven hours earlier that she’s Kansas City’s premier jazz vocalist.

SET LIST

First set

“Centerpiece,” “Devil May Care,” “A Hundred Dreams From Now,” “East of the Sun (and West of the Moon),” “Silver Blues,” “Meditation,” “What Is This Thing Called Love?,” “My Favorite Things”

Second set

“Arrival,” “Just Friends (with Giacomo Gates),” “Whisper Not,” “Spring Fever,” “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was,” “I Love Being Here With You,” “Gee, Baby, Ain’t I Good To You,” “Moody’s Mood For Love,” “That’s All”

Third set

“Midnight Eyes,” “My Romance,” “’S Wonderful,” “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” “Donna Lee”

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