Thursday, December 2, 2004
Jacqui Naylor is a chanteuse for the 21st Century.
While she launched her career in the mid-’90s as a standards-crooning jazz singer, the restlessly creative vocalist has evolved into a startlingly effective pop/cabaret artist, influenced by jazz but not beholden to the tradition.
She performs at Jazz & Blues Company on Saturday with her longtime creative foil, Art Khu, on piano and guitar, Michi Patri on drums and percussion, and David Ewell on bass and vocals. Naylor will be presenting the material that enabled her to pull off the unlikely feat of performing at two leading San Francisco venues last month.
At the Plush Room, one of the country’s leading cabaret venues, she presented her repertoire blending jazz dynamics and instrumentation with contemporary pop songs, including a stripped-down version of the Rolling Stones disco anthem “Miss You.” At Bruno’s, one of the birthplaces of the Bay Area’s mid-’90s acid jazz scene, she cut loose with “acoustic smashing,” blending jazz standards and pop tunes, such as the Talking Head’s “Once In A Lifetime” sung over the music of Joe Zawinul’s Weather Report hit “Birdland.”
With her cool blonde looks, the San Francisco-based Naylor is central casting’s idea of a nightclub singer, but she doesn’t get by on beauty. She has a lovely, deceptively small voice, sometimes reminiscent of late 1940s Billie Holiday. She doesn’t scat. She’s tends toward understatement, honoring the composer’s melody, though she can also add a gospel-tinged flourish when inspired.
“For me, improvisation is allowing all of my experiences and creativity to come in,” Naylor says. “It’s much more subtle than scatting. It might be a note in the melody changed here or there, in the second chorus. I listen to gospel. I listen to hip hop. I listen to rock and roll and R&B and I dig that stuff. So every once in a while, depending on what I ate for lunch and what I’ve been listening to, some of those things creep in there. I try not to be worried about the rules.”
Born and raised in Saratoga, Naylor spent a good part of her childhood absorbing show tunes from the player pianos and vintage mechanical instruments collected by her parents.
“I would play them incessantly,” Naylor says, “until my sister begged me to stop.”
While studying marketing at San Francisco State, she became interested in drama and acting. She caught the jazz bug in a music appreciation class when the professor played “Sarah Vaughan Sings Gershwin.”
She decided to develop her voice and sought out respected jazz vocal teacher Faith Winthrop. After a number of lessons, Winthrop convinced her that she had what it takes to be a jazz singer.
“She called me and said she had been offered a gig she couldn’t take, and could I do it,” Naylor says. “A gig? I don’t do that. She said, ‘You’ve got enough material.’ So two days later off I trundled. If she had given me any more lead time, I’m sure I would have backed out. It was some kind of corporate event at the Furniture Mart, so it was perfect. I had great musicians, and was off there in the corner. And I thought, ‘I like this.’”
Since devoting herself to singing full time in 1997—she put her marketing degree to use in running a fashion business with her husband for 10 years—Naylor has carefully charted each step. She’s released a series of smartly conceived albums, most recently last year’s Shelter (Ruby Records), which captures her rapid development as a composer. Like Peggy Lee, another chanteuse with a small but appealing voice, Naylor is finding that sometimes a singer is well served by her own material.