Singer Robin McKelle at Scullers Jazz Club
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The last date listed for Jazz Singer Robin McKelle was Thursday February 12, 2009 / 10:00pm.
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Robin McKelle comes out swinging on her second disc of big band jazz, “Modern Antique.” The bassist plucks some fat, rich chords, the pianist skitters over the keys, and McKelle herself confidently scats over the melody while the horn section eggs her on. The mood is playfully flirtatious, just this side of naughty. The entire combo is having so much fun – and so are you – that the tune is almost over before you realize it’s an ingenious re-arrangement of Steve Miller’s seventies classic, “Abracadabra.”
That opening gambit sets the tone for everything that follows. The singer has created a stylistically ambitious follow-up to her debut that evokes and honors the forties big-band sound she explored on the remarkable ‘Introducing Robin McKelle.’ There are more rhythm and blues touches, revealing McKelle’s torchy side, and she concludes the album with a self-penned ballad that fits in comfortably with the American Songbook gems that precede it.
‘Modern Antique’ will impress the ever-growing audience who’ve already discovered McKelle — via National Public Radio, her glowing press notices, or good old word of mouth — and it should attract the even wider audience in the U.S. she clearly deserves.
The adventurous spirit McKelle brings to ‘Modern Antique’ has distinguished her career from the start. For her debut disc, the young singer had such a strong conviction that she was willing to risk her own finances to record it – no small feat, given the arrangements that needed to be commissioned, the top-notch players to be hired.
Arranger-producer-trumpeter Willie Murillo (Brian Setzer Orchestra, Aimee Mann) also shared her vision. Together they fashioned an album that balanced period authenticity with the very present-tense thrill of hearing an artist eager to put her own stamp on songs like “Something’s Got To Give” and “Night & Day.”
“I was fortunate to connect with the right people,” says McKelle of her first recording. “Everything fell into place.” Both producer Murillo and Cheap Lullaby label owner Joe Ross were old friends and colleagues from Boston, where Rochester native McKelle went to study at the Berklee School. (Willie isn’t from Boston, he’s from LA) Ross immediately offered to pitch in once he heard what his former classmate was up to. They all stayed true to the thirties/forties big-band concept, even though McKelle knew there were other stylistic directions in which she could branch out. McKelle admits, “I did worry that people might think it’s the only thing I can do. But, looking back, I think it was the best decision, it helped me focus.”
These days McKelle may seem to be leading an at least semi-charmed life, especially with the way she’s been so deeply embraced in Europe after her debut was released in France, but her burgeoning success is really the result of countless gigs, lots of study and artistic drive. McKelle’s mother was a liturgical singer; McKelle herself, as a child, was drawn to pop music and musical theatre.
As a teenager, she started listening to jazz and learning jazz piano. For a time in high school, she envisioned going off to study opera, but then began to seriously contemplate further education in jazz. She went to the prestigious University of Miami jazz program before deciding to transfer to Berklee College of Music in Boston. After graduating with a music degree, she spent time in Los Angeles doing back-up singer work, then returned to Boston where she formed her own trio, joined Berklee’s Voice Department and became a featured soloist with the Boston Pops. In 2004, she took third place honors at the Thelonious Monk Vocal Jazz Competition in Washington, D.C.