Her scat singing is as rhythmically fluid and melodically inventive as a bebop saxophonist, though she can also deliver a ravishing ballad with a finely honed sense of drama
Kim Nalley sings the blues

By Andrew Gilbert

for the Mercury News
Posted: 01/15/2009 12:00:00 AM PST

Kim Nalley loves to sing the blues, but she doesn't want to live them.

For the past year or so, however, the vivacious jazz chanteuse has been reeling from the double whammy of a protracted divorce and the demise of the beloved North Beach club Jazz at Pearl's, which she owned and ran with her husband.

Contrary to the old myth, pain and turmoil don't necessarily deepen an artist's expression. Many more musicians have created their most influential and profound work during periods of relative stability than there are players who thrived through affliction.

For Nalley, the new year promises a period of personal and career rebirth, marked by a recent marriage proposal (she said yes) and a series of high-profile gigs, including Yoshi's on Jan. 29 and the Great American Music Hall on June 6, her first headlining show as part of SFJazz's spring season.

"I like music a lot more now," says Nalley, who performs on Sunday at The Improv. "In hindsight I'm not sure how I made it through the last few years. My goal in life was not to be a club owner, so why get entrenched in a battle to keep Pearl's open? I need to nurse my wounds and pick up the pieces."

For her Improv show, Nalley will perform with her longtime rhythm section, featuring pianist Tammy Hall, drummer Kent Bryson, and bassist Michael Zisman, a player who earned a stellar reputation in New York City and helped run the Stanford Jazz Workshop for many years.

Nalley's concert
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kicks off San Jose Jazz's 21st annual Sunday Jazz Series, which includes a particularly exciting lineup from the Bay Area and beyond. Among the highlights are Brazilian vocal explorer Claudia Villela (Feb. 22), Azerbaijan-born, Netherlands-based pianist/composer Amina Figerova (March 1) and Puerto Rican tenor sax star David Sánchez (March 8). (For a complete schedule, go to www.san josejazz.org.)

On a Bay Area scene rife with impressive musicians, Nalley has long stood out for her versatility and spunk. Rather than focusing on songs associated with Nina Simone, the subject of her rollicking album "She Put a Spell on Me," Nalley is planning on a wide-ranging set of material.

She's equally commanding belting a double-entendre-laden blues as she is crooning a sultry standard. Her scat singing is as rhythmically fluid and melodically inventive as a bebop saxophonist, though she can also deliver a ravishing ballad with a finely honed sense of drama.

In many ways, the San Jose Jazz gig is a coming-out party for Nalley, who is seeking to balance her personal life with her career after five years of running a jazz spot seven nights a week. And before taking over Pearl's from the club's founders, Pearl Wong and Sonny Buxton, Nalley was one of the busiest singers in the region, performing regularly under her own name or sitting in with friends.

She got a taste of her new freedom when two successive New Year's gigs fell through because of the faltering economy and she found herself gigless on Dec. 31 for the first time since the early 1990s. While New Year's shows usually mean a plush payday for musicians, she was glad to take in the night as a civilian.

"It's been nice to have time to do things that normal people do on weekends and attend other important events," Nalley says. "For the past five years running Pearl's was all-consuming, and it definitely came at the cost of my personal life. It's been wonderful to have enough freedom and space to meet someone and fall in love. These are emotions you need to sing with and sing for. Now I feel like I can be present in the music."

While Nalley is still sorting through the financial mess surrounding the demise of Pearl's (the club may yet reopen under someone else's management), she didn't emerge from her proprietary and marital meltdown with nothing to show for it. She ended up writing a whole set of breakup tunes, which she plans to record soon with a Hammond B-3 organ combo on a session produced by Pete Fallico.

"It was good to get that all out of my system," Nalley says. "There's only so long you can be in that space before it becomes a detriment to performing."

Kim Nalley

What: Opening performance of San Jose Jazz"s Sunday series
When: 2 p.m. Sunday
Where: The Improv, 62 S. Second St., San Jose.
Tickets: $30-40, (408) 280-7475, www.symfonee.com
Note: For complete schedule for the Sunday Jazz series, go to www.sanjosejazz.org
Posted on: Thursday January 15, 2009 PST