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With our most popular jazz event - the Red Sea affair - just finished in Eilat, it's good to keep the ball rolling with the arrival of London-based American vocalist Stacey Kent - for several reasons.
Firstly, for most Israelis Eilat is relatively far away, while the Zappa Club in Ramat Hahayal in north Tel Aviv - celebrating its second birthday - is a far more accessible spot. Secondly, Kent is an artist with style, stage presence and a voice that conjure up the ambience of jazz's long-gone heyday of the 1930s and 1940s in an uncomplicated and highly endearing manner.
Kent didn't quite have the textbook start for a professional musician. While she showed promise as a child and loved to sing at family events, there were no thoughts of making her living from jazz. In fact, she was a languages student at Sarah Lawrence College in New York, looking forward to a career in academia, when she took time out to visit Europe, ostensibly to study French and German for a master's degree in comparative literature.
Coming from New York, the jazz world's capital, it would have been fanciful in the extreme to predict that Kent would embark on a career in the discipline in, of all places, Britain.
It was in 1991, while visiting friends at Oxford University, that Kent saw an advertisement for auditions at the Guildhall School of Music. She went for it and passed with flying colors, and the rest is burgeoning jazz history. In the interim, she has released six CDs under her own name, won a string of jazz awards, and enjoys a highly successful ongoing collaboration with husband saxophonist Jim Tomlinson - who, like Kent, developed a penchant for the swing style early in life.
Tomlinson will lead the instrumentalists at the Tel Aviv gigs. The title track from Tomlinson's latest release, The Lyric, which naturally features Kent as vocalist, has even made its way into the Polish pop charts. And Kent's own newest record as leader, The Boy Next Door, is garnering acclaim and sizable sales, and enjoyed a 35-week stay on the American Billboard charts.
In retrospect, Kent feels that everything she grew up with led to the jazz bandstand.
"I didn't realize until I became a professional singer just how much I had wanted to sing as a child," she says. "My sister and I always sang together at family events. I liked old movie musicals, and I would try to figure out the songs on the piano. Fred Astaire was my favorite."
That love of traditional jazz and the staples of the popular American songbook shines through in whatever Kent does in the record studio and on stage. When she performs a Gershwin number, for example, you feel she is taking you by the hand and leading you through the chapters of the composer's story, while embellishing the tale with splashes of color and playful innuendo.
"My mother used to read us stories when we were small," she recalls, "and I can see how that comes through in what I do today. I look at my songs very much as telling a story."
Kent also feels that her grounding in languages is also a useful tool of her trade. "I was a language student because I loved to speak languages. I tell stories and play with my ear as a musician in the same way I did as a language student."
Having passed her music school audition in London, Kent soon came to the attention of veteran British jazz bandleader and BBC radio show host Humphrey Lyttleton. "Humph," as Lyttleton is known to the cognoscenti, was taken with Kent's swing delivery, girlish style and clear diction and was instrumental in landing her a spot as the big band vocalist in the opening scene of the 1995 film Richard III.
In the liner notes he wrote for Kent's 1997 debut releaseClose Your Eyes, Humph described Kent's voice as "Strong and clear, it has the invigorating tang of Vermouth." Not bad for starters.
Of course, sticking to traditional material can lead a singer straight into a minefield. Everything Kent performs has already been tried, tested and unforgettably delivered by some of the icons of the jazz world. How can a young product of the late 20th century possibly compete with versions put out by the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday? Somehow, Kent manages to take the well-trodden route without ever straying into sound-alike territory. She is, very much, her own woman and artist.
Stacey Kent will perform two shows a day at the Zappa Club in Tel Aviv on September 1, 2, and 3. Doors open at 7:15 p.m. and 10 p.m. For more information, call (03) 649-9550.
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