Kim Nalley Song/Storybook Delights Kuumbwa Audiences
December 6, 2010 by Maureen Davidson
Kuumbwa audiences do love a great song-storyteller, and Kim Nalley filled the bill beautifully on a Kuumbwa Monday night
when this singer known for her compelling performance/history of the songs, the life and times of Billie Holiday, brought a
tribute to Ella Fitzgerald to the welcoming crowd. I saw Nalley several years ago, presiding over the San Francisco jazz
institution, Jazz at Pearl’s, which Nalley and her partner stepped in to renovate and re-open after the originator and long-time
operator closed its doors. Now that Pearl’s is closed again, Nalley has been singing more in festivals and clubs around the
country, based in San Francisco in intimate spots like the Plush Room and the Rrazz Room as well as the big venues. She said
she was happy to return to Kuumbwa. Indeed, the Cedar Street atmosphere is conducive to her warm and confiding stage
The night opened with several dazzling tunes by the Tammy Hall Band, always a thrill to hear Hall whose musicianship and
driving interpretation keep her onstage as bandleader, soloist and accompanist. After the band took charge of the room Kim
Nalley appeared, more voluminous but younger-looking than I remember, and immediately strode into the groove the band had
set and with a little patter, a little stage business, a big white flower in her hair slid into Swing Brother Swing peppering the full
swing with a scatter of scat and moved right into a story about Ella Fitzgerald and the tough time she had as a kid and how she
broke into the Harlem jazz scene. Nalley’s range, not only from soprano to deep alto, but also the shape of the notes she sings
she seems ready to hurt herself perhaps by hardening those pipes to make the brassy bluesy high notes, clamping down in the
throat, then in seconds she’s open throttle and resonating down at the bottom of the scale.
Ella classics like one of my favorites First You Say You Do and Then You Don’t she swung in a high timbre, Hall jammed on
the piano with a fast percussive almost stride style sometimes, sometimes rolling out a real honky tonk trill; in this and all the
tunes, the interplay between the musicians built up the excitement. Throughout the Ella portion of the program, the music was
woven with history and sophisticatedly folksy yarns. Nalley did right by If I Didn’t Care and Tisket a Tasket, showing off that
marvelous range and the final Stompin’ at the Savoy she took as a slow ballad, really dancing around in its gutsy heart, finishing
with a very fast scat version.
The second part of the night was a freewheeling program of Billie Holiday, like Crazy They Call Me. Nobody has Billie’s nor
Ella’s timbre, but Nally captures the mood, the phrasing and has enviable pipes of her own. In a melodramatic but oh what the
hell You Can Have Him I Don’t Want Him she wielded her theatrical powers while Tammy Hall and her band created a
marvelously lush texture. I loved her rendition of Careless Love following a bare baseline joined by some vampy piano work.
The holiday portion of the program—who would have expected it? Apparently all who attended her performance a year ago at
Kuumbwa, as Santa Baby appeared by request and her sexy Eartha Kitt/Betty Boop take on it was a great hit, as was a hysterical
Hanukkah in Santa Monica. Ending with—who could resist it—Put a Spell On You.
From Big Band Swing of the 40s to Hanukkah in Santa Monica is quite a span for one night, but Nalley’s focused stage
presence and the musicianship of singer and all the band made this a fine Kuumbwa Monday.
The Exhibitionist is funded in part by a grant from the Cultural Council of Santa Cruz County