Jazz chanteuse Denise Donatelli beyond category
Written by Chuck Berg
Denise Donatelli is a miracle. She’s a jazz singer whose musical and dramatic gifts tempt one to reach for superlatives. Yes, her unerring sense of swing and subtle way with a phrase bear comparison to iconic jazz divas from Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan to Diana Krall. That said, though, she’s one of a kind, a chanteuse beyond category.
In contrast to the strike-up-the-band brassiness of most performers’ openings, Donatelli, instead, brought us into her world with a poignant limning of Benny Carter’s “When Lights Are Low.” With smoldering killing-us-softly intensity, Donatelli’s delivery glowed.
There’s of course a place for singers whose stock-in-trade is belting beloved tunes across the footlights. There’s also a place for those who whisper and coo. And then there’s Donatelli, a singer whose soulful jazziness bespeaks pure passion and musicality.
Appearing under the aegis of the Topeka Jazz Workshop, the Grammy-nominated singer shifted gears with a samba send-up of Joe Sample’s “Soul Shadows.” She also had her luminescent way with such ballads as Jimmy Van Heusen’s “Darn That Dream.”
Throughout the afternoon, Donatelli was backed by L.A. pianist Max Haymer, K.C. bassist Gerald Spaits and drummer John Kizilarmut, a newcomer to the K.C. scene. Playing like angels, they perfectly delivered on the complex arrangements that often spilled out from their music racks. Indeed, they sounded like they’d been playing Donatelli’s “book” for years.
The arrangements were penned by New York pianist Geoff Keezer and an integral part of the afternoon’s success. Haymer, taking his cues from Keezer’s charts, often was called upon to engage Donatelli with improvisations stunning in their virtuosic audacity and design. They were a perfect fit to the singer’s also inspired flights.
Their back-and-forth repartees were the stuff of magic. Calling on colors from the varied palettes of the mainstream bebop as well as the churning modalities of John Coltrane, it was as if Norman Rockwell had met Jackson Pollack in a stylistic mash-up on a dare.
The resulting mélanges lifted previous expectations of such evergreens as Hoagy Carmichael’s “Skylark” and Harold Arlen’s “My Shining Hour.” In Donatelli’s hands, the old suddenly became once again new!
The rest of her repertoire was likewise intriguing. All but forgotten tunes crafted by the iconic likes of Duke Ellington and Brazilian master Milton Nascimento were given fresh re-framings thus giving us new insights and, indeed, thrills.
Donatelli is a quietly radiant personality. At one time, she might have been featured by Esquire in its ‘’Women We Love” page. She’s youngishly mature in the manner of Lorraine Bracco who played Tony Soprano’s analyst. It’s an attractive aspect to both her singing as well as her persona.
Fresh! And also accessible! These two descriptors are key to helping make jazz a viable contemporary medium. Yes, we love the old standards. And, yes, we want to hear them yet once again. But, we also want our old wines served in new bottles.
Thanks to Donatelli (and the brilliant arranger, Keezer), and, of course, Haymer, Spaits and Kizilarmut, jazz was once again in the words of The New Yorker’s Whitney Balliett “The sound of surprise” — and yet also an old friend!