Bay Area jazz singer Kim Nalley performs Monday, Nov. 29 at Kuumbwa in Santa Cruz.
Kim Nalley is one of jazz’s great spelunkers, a dedicated explorer who delves into forgotten musical crevices to emerge with long-neglected songs and stories. A major force on the Bay Area scene since the mid-1990s, she’s fruitfully investigated the lives and legacies of Billie Holiday and Nina Simone (the subjects of her acclaimed albums Ballads For Billie and She Put A Spell On Me).
Nalley’s most recent project is also her most ambitious yet: a musical play detailing the early life of the incandescent Ella Fitzgerald. After a successful run at Sonoma County’s Cinnabar Theater, she’s incorporated many of the tunes from Ella: The American Dream into her club shows, like Monday’s performance at Kuumbwa.
Fitzgerald’s career benefited greatly from her association with impresario and producer Norman Granz, who oversaw her classic 1950s and ’60s albums focusing on the essential composers and lyricists who shaped the body of tunes known as the American Songbook (Berlin, Gershwin, Arlen, Porter, Kern, etc.). But Nalley feels that Fitzgerald’s early work as a big band star with the sensational Chick Webb Orchestra and her 1940s pop recordings for Decca are decidedly undervalued.
“Certain jazz critics constantly referred to some of those tunes as trite,” Nalley says. “They wanted to discredit the earlier catalog, but whatever Ella performed, she sang different every time, and her level of musicianship is so high. Since the Ella show I’ve been performing ‘Harlem Congo,’ ‘Undecided, ‘Stompin’ At the Savoy,’ an incredible body of work from that period. I hope we can dismiss this myth that nothing she did before the Granz era is worthwhile. ‘A-Tisket, A-Tasket’ is a fun tune, and when you do it up tempo it’s very difficult.”
Equally commanding whether belting a double entendre-laden blues number or crooning a sultry standard, Nalley can scat with the rhythmic dexterity of a bebop saxophonist and deliver a ravishing ballad with a finely honed sense of drama. Over the years she’s collaborated with a procession of heavyweights, from Hammond B3 goddess Rhoda Scott and piano great James Williams to tenor sax legends David “Fathead” Newman and Houston Person.
For her Kuumbwa show, Nalley performs with her longtime rhythm section featuring the supremely soulful pianist Tammy Hall, deft drummer Kent Bryson, guitar ace Josh Workman and bassist Michael Zisman, a player who earned a stellar reputation on the New York City scene in the early 1990s and helped run the Stanford Jazz Workshop for many years.
“I’ve been noticing that people writing reviews rave about the tight band,” says Nalley, who likes to work without a set list, calling songs on stage depending on the mood of the moment. “I like to feel the audience and for the sets to have an arc, and the arc is going to change night by night. This band has been with me so long, once I start talking about a tune, most of the time they’ll know what it is. I can talk about my mother’s favorite song, or the first song Ruth Brown came out with at SFJAZZ after she had a stroke, and they’re ready to go.”
When she’s not writing and starring in theatrical productions or performing internationally, Nalley teaches a college-accredited course on the history of jazz vocals at the Jazzschool in Berkeley. She’s also studying for a Ph.D. in history at UC-Berkeley, exploring the globalization of jazz via African-American expats who settled in Germany. On or off the bandstand, Nalley is always looking for another interesting story, and it’s a safe bet that whatever she finds will eventually surface in her music.