By Karis Rogerson for Broadway World
Stacey Kent’s voice is delicate, refined; one might even venture to say she’s posh. Her singing is transportive, taking audiences by the hand and flying with us into the past, until we blink and it’s almost as if we’re in a jazz club sometime last century. The upstairs room at Birdland Jazz Club was lit by candlelight, and the flickering flames lent themselves to the dream Kent weaves, assisted by pianist Art Hirahara and flautist/saxophonist Jim Tomlinson, in Songs From Other Places. The show is a celebration of the release of the same-named album, with all but one song arranged by Tomlinson (the exception was arranged by Hirahara).
The song arranged by Hirahara was “Blackbird,” and though it’s a song I’ve heard many a time, Kent’s vocals mixed with the thoughtful arrangement by Hirahara lent it newly emotional resonance. At the end of the performance, someone in the audience was heard whispering, “Wow,” before the rest of the crowd burst into applause.
Kent spoke fondly of her collaboration with the two men, whom she heralds as great musicians and collaborators. In fact, most of the songs on the setlist allowed Tomlinson and Hirahara to showcase their own abilities through long instrumental sections. Many of the songs allowed her to hold soft, low notes, and though there were few if any big belting moments, she showcased her mastery of the art form just as well through long notes that require impeccable breath control.
Kent sang several songs in French and at least one in Spanish, and though the meaning of the lyrics was lost on me during those songs, the songs each held a beautiful, almost fragile quality to them that spoke to something deep inside me. The setlist contained a combination of slow, dreamy songs and faster selections, and one of my favorites from the night was “Tango in Macao,” written by Tomlinson and novelist Kazuo Ishiguro. “Tango in Macao” has a lovely rhythm both musically and lyrically, telling a story of lies and betrayal, and it’s a little more brusque than many of the other selections. I was absolutely entranced throughout the whole performance.
While performing Paul Simon’s “American Tune,” Kent interrupted herself and started the song over about halfway through. She spoke a bit about “gig stamina” in between takes, sharing that she had “lost herself in the music” and loved the song so much she needed to start over. It was a moment that really highlighted Kent’s professionalism, as she decided to take a risk by starting over instead of continuing on and giving her audience a less-ideal performance. And while sharing candidly about what had happened, she opened the door for others to share as well.
Kent mentioned that being back at Birdland, especially after so many months of no live music, was an emotional moment. A couple in the front row shared they had flown in from Miami for her show, and another man deeper in the audience shouted out that it was his 65th wedding anniversary. The audience cheered for each other, and then Kent sang “American Tune” over again, and it was an absolutely transcending experience. It reminded us, on the one hand, that even the most stunning performers are human, too; and on the other, that humanity is beautiful. It also hammered home for me just how taxing singing is – performers must constantly focus on hitting the right notes, of course, but also balance the emotional weight of the words. It’s a big job, and Kent is masterful at it.