Singing in a time warp

Robin McKelle's jazz stylings hark back to 1940s America, even though she grew up listening to Whitney Houston.

Robin McKelle 88 224 (photo credit: )
Robin McKelle 88 224
(photo credit: )
Robin McKelle seems to be living and working in something of a time warp. Though she has only just turned 30, the Boston-based jazz singer unashamedly feeds off the spirit of 1940s America, as is abundantly clear from her appropriately titled debut album Introducing Robin McKelle. "I was born to be in that time, I swear," says McKelle, who will perform here later this week with a quintet. "You listen to the music from that period, and you picture these wonderful love stories between men and women. You picture how it was really supposed to be." In the age of MTV and instant but unemotional electronic communication, McKelle's ethos comes over as somewhat incongruous, but also wonderfully refreshing. While she grew up listening to contemporary rock and pop of the early Nineties, she was also exposed to some of the nuggets of yesteryear. "Initially, I wasn't exposed to anything even remotely close to jazz. I heard singers like Whitney Houston, and I was more influenced by popular radio music. But I also got into some of the great singers, like Chaka Khan and Gladys Knight, and [legendary jazz divas] Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan, naturally, also became great influences on me." Eventually jazz started seeping into McKelle's consciousness. "I started getting serious about singing jazz when I was 16," she recalls. "I listened to songs by Cole Porter and Irving Berlin - you know, the American Songbook." GRADUALLY JAZZ became a career option. "I chose jazz because it drew me to it. The melodies and the music are timeless. It's an historical US art form." There was also some parental influence in the calling. "My mother was a singer. She sang liturgical music, not gospel - you know, church music - and she played guitar and sang folk stuff. There was always music around at home." While McKelle has made a flying start to her career - her debut album is doing well and her second CD is due out this spring - it would be fair to say she has paid her dues. "I studied classical piano and singing, and I think the basics of those techniques come through in what I do today," she notes. After graduating from the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston, McKelle moved out to Los Angeles where for a while she made ends meet by doing background vocals for the likes of Savage Garden and Michael McDonald. After a while McKelle realized it was time to move on and make her own mark. She moved back east and took up a teaching position at her alma mater. "I taught at Berklee for three years and I would always tell my students to follow their dreams. Then I started thinking about practicing what I was preaching." PLACING WELL in the prestigious annual Thelonious Monk Competition certainly helped move things along. "That gave me a lot of confidence and I thought I would really go for it." Help was forthcoming from stellar jazz vocalists Kurt Elling and Dee Dee Bridgewater. There was still some hard labor to put in before McKelle's career started taking off. "I did weddings - lots of Jewish weddings - and bar mitzvas. I sang 'Hora' and 'Hava Nagila' many, many times." That not only helped to pay the bills; it also paid for the recording of Introducing Robin McKelle which, understandably, includes a version of the Andrews Sisters' hit "Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen." "I thought it was a fun song to do and the producer said I should try it in a sort of Latin style. It always goes down well with my audiences, and I hope it does in Israel too." For now, McKelle is just going with the flow. "This is a dream coming true. You never know if things are going to work out, but things are happening very fast for me now. I'm trying to enjoy the moment. I've never worked so hard in my life but I am enjoying every minute." Robin McKelle will appear at the Einav Center in Tel Aviv on Thursday at 8:15 p.m. and 10 p.m., and at the Zappa Club in Tel Aviv on Friday at 8:15 p.m. and 11:15 p.m.