Kathleen Battle, Jazz Headliner

What was Kathleen Battle doing as the headliner in the first concert of the season for Jazz at Lincoln Center? She was singing spirituals and lullabies, mostly. In what qualified as a pops concert for the jazz series, she was drawing a crowd to Avery Fisher Hall on Tuesday night (and performing at Lincoln Center after a public falling-out with the Metropolitan Opera). She was promoting her new album, “So Many Stars” (Sony), which was produced by Robert Sadin, the conductor of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. She was employing jazz musicians. But she did not overcome the vast gap between European and African-American vocal traditions.

The European style, Ms. Battle’s unquestioned dominion, is plotted in detail and steeped in earnestness; the African-American approach leaves room for improvisation, playfulness and parody. European songs call for instrumental support; African-American ones expect interaction. The European style floats free of gravity; the African-American style dances toward swing.

A so-called crossover effort was inevitable for an opera singer as bankable as Ms. Battle. Hers was not as embarrassing as, for instance, Placido Domingo’s collaboration with John Denver or Kiri Te Kanawa’s Gershwin. Instead of going to operatic extremes, Ms. Battle showed off her silky tone and her restraint, placing songs in the dulcet center of her range. She sang with a microphone, which caught both her limpid phrasing and the deep breaths normally hidden by an orchestra.

The jazz musicians held back when Ms. Battle sang, then romped between her verses, like students clowning behind the teacher’s back. And there were interludes of purer jazz during James Carter’s saxophone solos and when Wynton Marsalis played urbane, wry and tender trumpet in Duke Ellington’s “Black and Tan Fantasy” and his own ballad “Spring Yaounde.”

Following the wise crossover strategy of performers from Marian Anderson to Jessye Norman, Ms. Battle sang spirituals, which by now have their own concert-hall tradition. She brought them a tone of awed delicacy, like a private prayer. The slower the music, the better she sounded. In “Hush,” a duet with Christian McBride on bass, she shaped her bluest blue notes; “Give Me Jesus,” backed by Cyrus Chestnut on piano, insisted, “You can have all of this world” in a crescendo of renunciation. In an unaccompanied “Heaven Is One Beautiful Place I Know,” she balanced earthly travail with hope.

But she coasted through lullabies, with pretty delivery and vacant emotion. An uptempo song, “Every Time I Feel the Spirit,” showed her inability to swing, though she grew less gingerly singing it again as an encore. But Ms. Battle soared in Ellington’s “Come Sunday,” where she unveiled a more fervent tone and a climactic but gentle high C. Yet it was the composer, more than the singer, who had found the common ground.

by Jon Pareles
Source: The New York Times

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