Club Review: Kate Baker

July 25, 2021 | By

There is a lot of speculation about how (and which) clubs will make it through the pandemic and bring night life back to the city.  There is less talk about how performers get back into shape after a year and a half of forced inactivity; that, too, is an area of concern.  From what I have witnessed so far, it is not “as easy as riding a bike.”  On the contrary, there have been a number of “bike accidents” occurring online and in virtual performances, and on stages from uptown to down.   A case in point is the recent appearance by Kate Baker as part of Pangea’s Hot Summer Night Jazz Series, curated by Ben Cassara.  I was not familiar with Baker before this show, so I can’t be absolutely sure how much of the tentativeness and somewhat ragged delivery that was on display in Pangea’s jewel box of a cabaret arose from these circumstances, but there was an under-rehearsed feel, especially in the first half of the evening, and a too frequent inability to sing totally “in the pocket.”

Kate Baker

That said, Baker has a pleasing sound and displays a relaxed, intelligent delivery that got stronger as the evening went on. But on stage, in front of an audience, is never the ideal place for this kind of warming up to take place.  There was a smartly chosen set of songs yet the order was ragtag, with lots of stops and starts with no sense of movement from song to song.  The opener, Lennon and McCartney’s “Fool on the Hill,” lacked narrative clarity but I quite enjoyed pianist Rachel Z’s winking interpolation of “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top” into the background.  The singer could not have asked for more accomplished or empathetic support than that offered by Rachel Z, Jon Toscano (on bass), and Anthony Pinciotti (on drums).  While it took the singer a while to settle in on stage, the musicians were in top form from the first notes. 

 Next came Todd Rundgren’s “Hello It’s Me,” which seems to be going through a renaissance in New York clubs at the moment. On it, Baker displayed a soft, contemplative scatting that fit her well and compensated for losing her way in the beautiful pop song.  Surprisingly, she revealed that she had just discovered  “I Have Dreamed” (Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II). Her gently swinging vocal worked well.  One of the highlights of the night was “Dreamsville” (Henry Mancini, Raymond Evans, Jay Livingston), on which her obvious, joyful connection to the song was delightful. On Carole King’s “So Far Away,” the jazz setting transformed it into a wistful confession of longing. Baker had a ball with “I’m Gonna Go Fishing” (Duke Ellington, Peggy Lee), and it offered her most assured vocal.  She included a few originals which were effective, if at times a bit nondescript, but I especially enjoyed the Joni Mitchell vibe in some of them.  

What was most surprising to me was the lack of stagecraft and the lack of attention to detail.  Most bothersome was her placement of her hand and microphone directly in front of her mouth, blocking the bottom half of her face and preventing us from fully understanding the lyrics, especially on the self-penned songs that were new to the audience.  There were lyric gaffes in a number of songs; the most distracting occurred in “I Have Dreamed” in which she changed the phrase “I will love being loved by you” to “I have loved being loved by you,” entirely changing the meaning of the line, not once, not twice, but three times.  She had a habit of breaking focus as soon as her vocals ended—even though the music had not yet finished—and turning to the music stand to her left, even shuffling papers and trying to read them as the musicians continued to play. They displayed more commitment to the storytelling than the singer herslf, who appeared in a rush to get on to the next number.  I could never really relax at the show because I never felt that she was relaxed.  The singer had the habit of (unnecessarily) “conducting” her trio, even going so far as to turn her back to the audience to give the impression she was leading the band in or out of a song. Certainly, the jazz idiom should allow for freedom and improvisation but it should not be an excuse for lack of preparation or focus.

I hope that as she returns to the world of cabaret and jazz she will become more relaxed and in control.  Kate Baker has a good voice and is an involving vocalist when she connects fully with the material.  She is certainly worth a second listen in the future.  

***

Presented at Pangea as part of Pangea’s Hot Summer Night Jazz Series on July 14.

 

Category: News / Reviews / Commentary, Reviews

About the Author ()

Gerry Geddes has conceived and directed a number of musical revues—including the Bistro- and MAC Award-winning "Monday in the Dark with George" and "Put On Your Saturday Suit-Words & Music by Jimmy Webb"—and directed many cabaret artists, including André De Shields, Helen Baldassare, Darius de Haas, and drag artist Julia Van Cartier. He directs "The David Drumgold Variety Show," currently in residence at Manhattan Movement & Arts Center, and has produced a number of recordings, including two Bistro-winning CDs. He’s taught vocal performance at The New School, NYU, and London’s Goldsmith’s College and continues to conduct private workshops and master classes. As a writer and critic, he has covered New York’s performing arts scene for over 40 years in both local and national publications; his lyrics have been sung by several cabaret and recording artists. Gerry is an artist in residence at Pangea, and a regular contributor to the podcast “Troubadours & Raconteurs.” He just completed a memoir of his life in NYC called “Didn’t I Ever Tell You This?”

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