Kris Adams is one of those singers who can do amazing things without ostentatious showiness.
By Jon Garelick
There were several good reasons to see Kris Adams at Ryles on Wednesday night. The talented singer (and longtime Berklee professor) can deliver in just about any context. But her show at Ryles was special, and may have been a one-time event. Adams’s new CD, Longing (Jazzbird Records), is an ambitious venture, on which she collaborated with the veteran trumpeter and arranger Greg Hopkins and as many as 9 other musicians on a couple of tunes. At Ryles, Adams and Hopkins recreated the arrangements of the album, with only a couple of subs. It was a generous offering by any measure: a million-dollar band playing for a $10 cover.
Okay, a million might be an exaggeration. But figure that in addition to Adams and Hopkins, the band at Ryles featured pianist Tim Ray; a reed section of Rick DiMuzio, Shannon LeClaire, and Ben Whiting; flutists Fernando Brandão and Bob Patton (who also co-produced the album with Adams and Hopkins); bassist Paul Del Nero, drummer Mark Walker; and percussionist Bertram Lehmann. For a few numbers guitarist Steve Kirby sat in, subbing for the album’s Eric Hofbauer. (In the second set at Ryles, which I didn’t see, the band was joined by cellist Catherine Bent, in for the album’s Eugene Friesen.)
The size of the band wasn’t just for muscle power. Adams likes to sing wordlessly as part of the horn section, so, for opener “The Glide” (by Ralph Towner and Norma Winstone), Hopkins scored a tricky passage for her to sing in unison with the horns and a second section in which vocalist and horns played counterlines. It was heady, effervescent, and in keeping with the devil-may-care ride of the tune and its lyrics.
For Michel Legrand and Johnny Mercer’s “Once Up on Summertime,” Adams was couched in harmonies provided by a bass clarinet, two standard B-flat clarinets, and two flutes. Here the movie-score romance was spelled by a dreamy passage from the flutes. Mary Lou Williams’s “What’s Your Story Morning Glory?” offered the pleasures of classic Basie swing. This was a “little big band” with all the orchestral color of a big band, but translucent and limber.
There were also several small-group features — Hopkins playing trumpet with bucket mute in perfectly deployed obligattos behind Adams on the Steve Swallow ballad “Wrong Together” (with lyrics by Adams); DiMuzio breaking for an eloquent tenor solo on Abbey Lincoln’s “Living Room”; LeClaire ripping a superbly phrased alto solo on a boogaloo arrangement of “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was.”
The latter offered one of many chances to savor the interplay between Walker and Lehmann, who created supporting weaves of cross rhythms without overwhelming the arrangements in extraneous pounding. Walker, for one, has always been a drummer of exquisite restraint, straddling the divide between Afro-Latin “even eighths” and jazz swing, making the most of his brushwork, playing rolls with light sticks on snare.
Adams, meanwhile, is one of those singers who can do amazing things without ostentatious showiness. Clear and bright, her voice was never lost among all those horns, her pitch unerring. On “Once Upon a Summertime,” she navigated the rhythmic challenges with sure control of breath and intonation, and when she landed on and held a final high note on the word “summertime,” it was no big deal. Just part of the music, thank you. The fact that Ray’s piano was right there with her in the upper register was lagniappe.
And for a singer who teaches more than she performs, Adams knows about the stage. She’s the kind of performer who tells you that she wanted to wear the shoes she bought in Rome (on sale!) but the toes were just too tight for singing. When beautiful music sounds this easy, you’ve earned the right to kick off your heels.
Jon Garelick is a freelance writer who lives in Somerville, MA. He blogs at jongarelick.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter at @jgarelick. He is former arts editor of the Boston Phoenix.