Of the wonderful things – that you get out of life – there are four. Nancy King phrased the complex lyrics so they snapped to the quirky beat of the classic bebop tune, Four, each syllable quick-stepping to the melody. And baby – so to truth, honor and happiness – add one thing more. Meaning only wonderful, wonderful love – that’ll make it four.
It’s become one of her signature tunes, and her masterful performance made it stand out in an evening of musical highlights at King’s 67th birthday party and concert at the Bijou CafÃ© on Friday. In fact, it sounded as if the Portland-based jazz singer had every one of those wonderful things she was singing about within her grasp.
The love was clearly evident, at any rate, in the warmth and affection that the standing room only crowd and fellow musicians showed the singer, who received a Grammy nomination for Best Jazz Vocal last year.
And she did look happy, digging the work of the seven instrumentalists from her seat on a stool in their midst. Hair pulled back in characteristic ponytail, King rocked forward, shouting encouragement, nodded her head in affirmation, smiled and, between tunes, told funny stories.
And when she sang, well, you’d need to paraphrase the theme to Superman to do it justice, because she appeared to leap tall buildings in a single breath, scat faster than a speeding bullet, and build momentum like a freight train. All with perfect intonation.
This is one of the best jazz singers in the world, after all.
Though she has performed on major stages, recorded with the renowned Metropole Orchestra of the Netherlands, and released a number of highly-regarded albums, King has not received recognition and financial rewards commensurate with her abilities.
Perhaps her dedication to truth and honor, both personally and professionally, has at times slowed the process. But she has always had the satisfaction of making music in her own uncompromising way. And given her increased opportunities in the past few years, it looks like that was the right path.
I still believe in justice, she said a decade ago, before all the recent recognition. I’m confident that the universe is taking care of me because I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.
On Groovin’ High, written by Dizzy Gillespie, one of King’s heroes, she dug deep into her alto range, then suddenly jumped an octave, attenuating that note to a thin stream before plummeting again to fat, round tones in the lower register.
One nearly every tune she sang, the instrumentalists seemed to elevate their performance in response to her example. Warren Rand’s alto saxophone slithered around the melody, his big tone swelling with emotion, while Cheryl Alex’s cool alto flute offered a well-paced foil. Saxophonist Toby Stone recalled the warmth of bebop-era tenor players, her tone like a homage; Robert Moore sang several duets with King as well as a heartfelt version of I Can’t Get Started; and young pianist Dan Gaynor’s solos flashed in concert with the rhythm section of drummer Carlton Jackson and bassist Scott Steed.
King urged them on, and every solo was greeted by shouts and applause as the crowd felt the collaborative spirit among the musicians. And that’s what makes King such a sterling jazz vocalist: she situates herself as an equal partner among the instrumentalists. Unlike the pop tradition, where the singer stands alone and the others are mere accompanists, King uses her voice as simply another instrument in the ensemble.
But on her 67th birthday, she was clearly first among equals.