Is it just me, or does referring to someone as a "crooner" feel like a putdown? Come to think of it, it probably is me.
Back in the college, I auditioned for a spot in the chapel choir. As a nervous sophomore transfer student - and an admittedly poor site reader - my approach was on the tentative side, rather than the hammy imitation of the Bugs Bunny opera singer I'd learned to do in high school. This started as a gag to do for my friends; much to my surprise, choir teachers loved it. "Why don't you sing like that all the time?" one asked me. Anyway, after I'd stumbled through my Chapel Choir audition piece, the director muttered something about me being "more of a crooner." It was something in the tone of his voice, but I found myself wanting to leap across the room and choke him.
This memory resurfaced the other night at singer Sachal Vasandani's show at Dimitriou's Jazz Alley.The man introducing Vasandani described him as "a great crooner. These words were followed by an audible gulp, after which he hastily added, "...uh, and a first-rate jazz artist." It was the kind of recovery you might hear from a guy on a blind date who announces that Ugg boots are the least flattering footwear ever foisted on the feminine gender, only to look down and see a pair of chestnut brown Sundance IIs, the toe of one tapping ominously. "But they look great on you! Now what's taking so long with that table?"
Or anyway that's how I heard it.
The good news for the capacity crowd that greeted Vasandani - emerging from the back of the house, all movie-star handsome in a sharp suit and tie, gliding to the stage under the adoring gaze of a follow spot - is that the he is, in fact, both a great crooner and a first-rate jazz artist. He can also belt it out when called upon, and scat with smooth assurance.
He's also a gifted songwriter, capable of both adding to and re-interpreting the traditional jazz repertoire. A case in point is "Escape," a new introduction to "There's a Small Hotel." "Escape" not only stands on it’s own, while also allowing you to appreciate the original from a new angle.
Vasandani is touring in support of a new release, "We Move," on the excellent Mack Avenue label. The CD's production is quite lush, at times too much so for me. (I wouldn't be surprised to hear the title track turn up in the background of Grey's Anatomy.) On stage with his excellent young trio (Jeb Patton, piano; David Wong, bass; and the occasionally too loud Jeremy Brown, drums), Vasandani seemed to be having a high old time and exuded the charm and ease of classic Bobby Darin. The droning influence of Vasandani's fellow Chicagoan Kurt Elling, in evidence on both "We Move" and Vasandani's debut recording "Eyes Wide Open" was all but absent. To me that's a good thing.
On the cusp of his 30s, Vasandani is still working out who he is as an artist, incorporating influences as diverse as Sinatra, Jon Hendricks, Joni Mitchell, and Sade. The mix isn't perfectly distilled yet, but he and the trio consistently served up the good turtle soup. Mic dynamics proved to be an issue throughout the night, but I’m not sure whether this was his problem or something that should have been worked out during the sound check. Whichever, it was definitely a distraction.
The crowd (which included a lot of the under-30s everybody in the jazz intelligentsia is so exercised about) seemed to eat it up, but at the end of the set there was no encore. This struck me as odd, but then Seattle-ites are notorious for their polite equanimity.
Where ever the road leads him, Vasandani merits watching. As we passed by the autograph line on the way out, a swoony woman in her 40s standing next to the singer called out to her mortified teenage daughter, “Get over here with that camera and take my picture!”
A certain Canadian crooner whose name rhymes with “poo-flay” would do well to take note.
(Image pilfered from Mack Avenue Records.)
Show: Sachal Vasandani at Jazz Alley - Seattle - November 11, 2009
That Old Black Magic
Escape/There's a Small Hotel
Don't Worry About Me
Please Mr. Ogilvy
Medley: Royal Eyes/There Are Such Things/My Dear
All The Way
Ring Road (Back to You)
Every Ocean, Every Star