michelle walker 88.
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If the first installment of the 17th edition of the annual Hot Jazz series is anything to go by, we're in for a wide-ranging season.
Thirty-year-old American singer Michelle Walker fits in a four-day, three-city tour of the country, starting Wednesday in Jerusalem. She will be presenting a program that draws as much from the pop and rock icons of the 70s as from the giants of jazz.
"I think you have to offer something new," Walker states simply. "There's not much point in rehashing what's already been done. I bring all my influences to bear on what I do, and they include [60s and 70s pop-rock acts] Police, James Taylor, Earth Wind & Fire just as much as Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra."
Walker not only culls from a range of musical sources; she has also gained some valuable on-the-road experience.
"I spent a few years in London when I was younger," she says. "I was 19 and didn't know what I wanted to do, but I felt like I needed to get away from my home base. London is such a cosmopolitan place. Like most teenagers, I was searching for something. I planned on being there for a year and ended up staying for five."
While in England, she pursued a rewarding learning curve.
"I met so many people from all kinds of cultural and musical backgrounds. I went to open-mic evenings and met like-minded guys, and suddenly I had 20 singer friends. It was great."
One of those friends had a telling influence on Walker's artistic evolution. "There was an Australian woman who was a friend of [English singer-songwriter] Alison Moyet. The Australian woman sang Stevie Wonder songs, but in a different way - as swing and bossa nova. Then I realized you could take any material and do it differently. That opened a door for me."
In fact, Walker's musical education began very early.
"My grandmother was a blues and jazz singer from Alabama. She taught me songs, and my mother studied classical voice, so there was a lot of music at home."
Walker's father was in the army, and that meant the family frequently relocated.
"Wherever we went, my mom insisted we join the local community theater. And we all played instruments. I tried violin, flute and piano, but eventually realized it was my voice I should be concentrating on."
Veteran crooner Mark Murphy has also been an influence.
"The biggest thing I learned from him was to let the lyrics drive the musical arrangements. You can take a tune, say with a high swinging tempo, and Latinize it to a rumba. You can find yourself doing something which people recognize by the words but not by the way you do the tune. I like to surprise my audience."
That eclectic approach has invited all manner of comparison by critics and fans alike. She has been likened to sultry voiced, jazz-oriented singer Cassandra Wilson, blues-gospel oriented singer Nina Simone and colorful jazz singer Betty Carter. She doesn't mind the references, but says she is keen to follow her own path.
During her four-date tour here, Walker will share the stage with longtime accompanist, pianist Daniela Schaechter as well as local artists, saxophonist Amit Freedman, bass player Miki Vershai and drummer Shay Zelman. Audiences can expect to hear some of Walker's singular versions of numbers popularized by the likes of Fitzgerald, Sinatra and Simone.
"I hope people in Israel will be surprised by what I do, and also enjoy it," says Walker.
Possibly the biggest name in the series is veteran pianist Kenny Werner, who will team up with Israeli flute player Ilan Salem in February with a program based on their joint album, which came out earlier this year.
Other names to look for are saxophonist Jimmy Greene (scheduled for June) and US pianist David Hazeltine, who will join forces with compatriot saxophonist Eric Alexander in a ballad-based program next month.
Michelle Walker and band will perform at the Camelot Herzliya on Tuesday at 10 p.m.; the Gerard Bechar Center in Jerusalem on Wednesday at 9 p.m.; at the Tel Aviv Museum on November 8 and 9 at 9 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. respectively; and at Abba Hushi House in Haifa on November 10 at 9 p.m. Check out www.hotjazz.co.il for details or call (03) 573-3001.