Two–time Grammy Award winner Diane Schuur showcased her blazing and versatile musical talent in a powerhouse, perfectly-pitched concert at the Bethesda Blues and Jazz Supper Club on Friday, June 6th and it was a night of “firsts.” Ms. Schuur’s appearance was her first at this wonderful new venue for performers, and it was the starting point of an exciting new tour that will take her around the country, it was the first all-out promotion of her audacious and bold new album I Remember You-with Love to Stan and Frank (musical mentors Stan Getz and Frank Sinatra) and it was the first time I had ever heard an artist break away so radically from the zone of safe, easy artistic choices.
I had the privilege of seeing Ms. Schuur live about twenty years ago and have been listening to her recordings for years, always recognizing that I was listening to a very unique master who was able to fuse her sense of the lyric and, especially, her intuitive sense of melody and rhythm to almost any category of music from pop to jazz to blues. Too talented to easily categorize, her concert at the Bethesda Blues and Jazz Supper Club showed an artist who was most decidedly eschewing any easy categorization.
Schuur sang (and played a mean piano) through eleven standards with an audacious, bold, brassy and sassy understanding of each song, continually surprising the crowd with unanticipated new musical takes and brash yet, concurrently, sensitive scat singing and phrasing.
As I told Ms. Schuur when I had the pleasure of meeting her, she should be patented as a musical instrument herself and, indeed, she blended in beautifully with the four superior musicians who accompanied her, as if she herself was the fifth instrument in the musical ensemble (they should manufacture a Diane Schuur instrument that you could play at will!). Joel Frahm on Sax, Roni Ben-Hur on Guitar, Ben Wolfe on Bass and Willie Jones III on Drums participated in the musical proceedings together and–at times-with distinctive solo turns. The camaraderie displayed among Schuur and her band of music –makers was very affectionate, relaxed and infectious.
A very jazzy rendition of the Gershwin standard “S’Wonderful” opened the set with fascinating, somewhat atonal singing and scatting by Schuur. Marvelous jazz interludes by her musicians formed the centerpiece of this swinging number with Schuur augmenting the pace with deep, almost-guttural tones, only to swoop back up into a swinging, upbeat crescendo.
A more mellow cover of the lovely standard “Nice ‘n’ Easy” (music by Lew Spence, Lyrics by Alan Bergman and Marilyn Bergman) ended with Ms. Schuur (affectionately known as “Deedles”) holding out a high note for a breathtaking finale.
A jubilant and buoyant rendition of Demy and Legrand’s “Watch What Happens” had a stunning Sax solo by Joel Frahm with each musician eventually joining in with Schurr for a great jazzy conclusion.
Cole Porter’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” was unlike any rendition I have ever heard of this still remarkably potent song. Schuur’s delivery was very pointed and direct but, alternately, full of subtext and poignancy. As I told Ms. Schuur, not since Sarah Vaughan turned her voice into a veritable fog when drawing out the words: “a foggy, foggy day in London Town” (from the song “A Foggy Day in London Town”) had I ever felt words transformed beyond their outer verbal meaning into an actual living breathing entity; in Schuur’s acrid, fully-realized and drawn-out singing of the last repeating of the words “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” she had convinced me that someone was “under her skin.” Schuur evoked such a rare moment of intensity and absorption in the lines that I felt an artistic epiphany of sorts and a moment of artistry that cannot be duplicated.
The Latin rhythms of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “How Insensitive” were an apt match for the dexterity of Schuur’s vocal chops. Her musicians ably supported her with the beautiful Brazilian feel of this song.
Schuur’s cover of “Here’s That Rainy Day” by Jimmy Van Heusen was performed with an emotional rawness and passion that sent chills down the spine. A very musically intermixed and jolting ending added to the luster of this fine arrangement.
Jimmy Webb’s “Didn’t We” was performed with a clarity and precise directness that was a nice change of pace. Schuur’s voice added great texture to what can easily be a bit of a clichéd song.
The song “I Remember You” with Lyrics by Johnny Mercer and Music by Victor Schertzinger was a veritable musical smorgasbord—opening with a wonderful Sax Solo by Frahm and then veering into a superb guitar solo by Ben-Hur which grew into increasing cumulative musical power as Schuur continued to scat and play the piano throughout. This number had a joyously jazzy feel.
Back to a bit of a mellower mood with the medley “I Get Along Without You” and “Don’t Worry Bout Me” followed by a solid yet sensitively probing version of Van Heusen’s “The Second Time Around”.
This exhilarating concert concluded with an absolutely electric and rousing rendition of the standard “For Once In My Life”. An exceptional prolonged Drum solo by Willie Jones 111 culminated in a great wildly free crescendo and a joyous shout-out by Schuur to the captivated crowd.
As Ms. Schuur remarked to me: “There is a rebuilding going on in the artistic direction of her career” and this concert (which is reflected on her new CD) is a testament to the fresh, innovative artistic growth she is sharing with a whole new generation of fans.
The Bethesda Blues and Jazz Supper Club should be commended for bringing an artist of Ms. Schuur’s stature to their exciting new venture.
Running Time: One Hour and 40 minutes, with one 20-minute intermission.
Diane Schuur’s website.