If Dinah Washington had lived in the soul era, she'd sound like Kim Nalley.
SHE’S GOT SPUNK
Experience the jazz force of Kim Nalley
By David Freeland

“It takes a lot of downtime to be an artist,” Kim Nalley reflects, her voice as lilting in speech as it is in song. “I think it’s really hard to create good music if you’ve got some stressful 9-to-5, and you get to play on the weekends. I’ve never really been one of those people.”

But that doesn’t mean she hasn’t, in her words, “paid a lot of dues.” Initially she wanted to be an opera singer. But in college Nalley caught the “jazz bug” and discovered she loved it. She then supported her way through school by performing in church choirs for stipends, cleaning houses, working for nonprofit environmental organizations and taking the midnight-to-morning shift at a gas station, where she studied for class.

“Everyone was like, ‘You’re gonna get killed!’” Nalley recalls with a throaty laugh. In 1999 she gained national attention through the release of Million Dollar Secret (Rounder), upon which she fronted the Johnny Nocturne Band. Jazz lovers had finally found a singer who combined the grace of Billie Holiday with the tartness and vim of Dinah Washington and Helen Humes. There is no need to sidle up to Nalley; she grabs you from bar one. The timbre is distinctive; the voice is full and commanding. 

“My family is very, very musical,” she says. “Everybody plays something or sings. The Christmas carols would always be in three-part harmony, and we’d get the Latin verse in there. I really didn’t know that most families don’t grow up that way.” 

Still in her thirties, the San Francisco–based Nalley is not the recognized name she deserves to be, but that hasn’t stopped her from releasing heartfelt tributes to singers like Holiday and Nina Simone on her own label, CE Jazz & Blues. On the Simone disc, released in 2006, she delivers the bluesy “In the Evening by the Moonlight” as a tender reflection upon childhood insouciance. Midway through her performance, Nalley accelerates the tempo, building to a brassy and trumpet-like finish—a roaring effusion of sound. Later, on a hortatory version of “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free,” she effectively surpasses Simone in vocal range and in emotional accessibility, too. If Dinah Washington had lived into the soul era, this is what she might have sounded like. Still, there is a belief among Nalley’s fans that her recordings haven’t quite captured the range of her talents and that her beauty and dynamism are more fully experienced live.

“I’ve had some people say to me, ‘Oh Kim, you’re so much better live than your albums. Your CDs don’t do you justice.’ Well, they shouldn’t, really, should they? Was a Betty Carter CD ever as great as going to see Betty Carter live? Isn’t that the whole purpose of jazz and live performance?”

Nalley’s past few months have been dramatic and full of change. She has gone through a divorce, and she has also mentioned plans to step back from operating the San Francisco jazz club she’s owned for the past several years. The next recording, she asserts, will take on more of a blues shading (“a nice breakup album”). In the meantime, New Yorkers will have the chance to witness Nalley’s effulgent spirit at the Metropolitan Room.  
“I’ve got a lot of spunk and personality. There’s stuff about a Kim Nalley show that’s a force to be reckoned with live.”

April 18 & 19, Metropolitan Room, 34 W. 22nd St. (betw. 5th & 6th Aves.), 212-206-0440; 10, $20.