Lesson in How to Take the Structure of Golden Oldies Up to the Margin
The Guardian U.K., John Fordham
September 18, 1998
Carmen Lundy, the subtle, graceful and hauntingly dramatic singer from Miami, shared the stage at The Jazz Cafe with a huge vase of flowers.
Unexpectedly for an artist, who, like her inspiration Betty Carter, enjoys springing her ideas off the band, Lundy was carrying the show as a duet for herself and pianist John Stetch. It was a tribute to her imagination and technique that the audience ate an audaciously wide-ranging repertoire out of her hand.
Lundy is an intelligent and idiosyncratic performer, who demonstrates her absorption of the work of the great American female vocalist like Carter, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughn. But despite a repertoire of standard material and originals that owes a lot to the structures of standards, Lundy always tests the margins.
That urge was more than usually explicit at The Jazz Cafe, because the exposure of duo performance obliged her to reveal technical skills she rarely pushes to the limit. It was a world away from Lundy's uneasy show at The Mezzo last year.
John Stetch was an ideal complement, anticipating her lines with probing counter-melodies, baiting her with twisting spontaneous themes she would laughingly swat back at him, adding drama and contrast at every turn.
One of Lundy's signatures is immense sonority of tone coupled with frank, speech-like directness of clarity and lyric. These resources, combined with strikingly fresh arrangements, transformed familiar songs. What Is This Thing Called Love? came in after a stomping piano introduction instead of it's usual glide, and Lundy delivered it in a raw, declamatory harangue, as if a query to which she already had an uncomfortable answer.
The spookily coy, whispering confidences of the coda enhanced rather than reduced the sensation that the song was a catch question. There Will Never Be Another You, however, was an almost instrumental piece, unfolded as a yodelly scat, increasingly embroidered by Stetch, whose phrases were mirrored and pummeled by Lundy.
On very slow ballads, Lundy went to the other extreme of her skills, and lowered the dynamic level to the point where the audience strained to catch an astonishing delicacy of high-note manipulation rarely heard from her on record or in most of her live work.
She more or less abstracted Old Devil Moon, kicking it in as a low-pitched, trombone-like wordless riff echoed by Stetch, perfunctorily waving the main theme, then hurling into a tumult of slewing improvised runs, crash stops, and bop-like melodies sprinting over headlong counter-melodies from the piano.
But it was You're Not In Love, a Lundy original and the somber stand-out of her last album, that clinched it, a dignified lament that confirms the completeness of her skills.