In her element
by Kate Conner-Ruben
It's night one of Koke McKesson's two-day CD release extravaganza at the Firefly a beautiful October night and the place is packed with people who all appear to be her very closest friends. Whooping and hollering and in-jokes and presents abound, along with a palpable bonhomie that comes billowing out of the mouth of this Jackson-based jazz singer with every note, every toss-back of her head, every broad smile.
There's a quite a lot of smiling going on. McKesson greets each song as if it were a long-lost lover she's never stopped pining for. "She lets the song be a song," a friend of mine says. "She doesn't render it unrecognizable just to prove she can." But I think it's more like this: this warm and affable woman in a bright red dress just seems so damn delighted to be on that stage, singing that song, with that band, for that audience, there's simply no need for vocal jazz-o-technics. Perfect for a simple girl like me.
McKesson was born to do this. One wonders how she handles the quotidian duties of daily life when clearly every cell in her body is on full jazz alert, checking for any available stage, humming some delectable cellular scat-lick. With a mike in her hand and her fine, tasteful band at her back, here is a woman in her element, offering her full-bodied voice and alternately lazy and frisky phrasing to her adoring public.
Tonight's adoration, of course, is cued to the release of McKesson's eponymous debut CD a collection of eleven luscious standards and originals. She and her band kick off the disk with a Tilt-a-Whirl take on Lane and Lerner's "On a Clear Day." McKesson swoops through the song, punctuating her phrases with the occasional quirky, clicky little yodel. Gosh, it's nice.
Number two is sweet and sultry "Sentimental Paradise" penned by McKesson, Steve Frarey, and her pianist (and CD coproducer) Dennis Therrian. Ed
Fedewa's bass line is front and center in a terrific arrangement of Harold Arlen's "A Sleepin' Bee." Dave Frishberg's sassy "Peel Me a Grape" trips deftly into comedy. The final cut, "When Your Lover Has Gone," is a duet for McKesson and drummer Lawrence Leathers. I had to listen to it three times in a row; there's so much going on in there.
I can get pretty glassy-eyed in jazz clubs, but it's mainly because I go all trancy thinking about how I could get the singer to help me out in some necessary vocal way. When I leave Koke McKesson and her legions of standing-room fans on a fall night, I wonder if I could get her to sing my Christmas carols for me, my lullabies, my outgoing phone messages . . .
Koke McKesson returns to the Firefly Club on Friday, January 30.
[Originally published in January, 2004.]