Need My Sugar – Kim Nalley

Kim Nalley has been a fixture on the San Francisco music scene for the best part of a decade and with this album, her sophomore release, looks set to increase her profile significantly in both her native US and Europe. In a world where any number of pretty young things with pleasant voices is being touted as the next jazz superstar, Ms Nalley is the real deal. Her confidence shines through in a style that is both bright and confident yet reveals considerable subtlety and range.

Comparisons are always invidious but, for those who haven’t heard the singer before, the voice that Nalley’s most closely resembles, on first hearing at any rate, is Dinah Washington. Nalley’s tone possesses a lighter quality but she shares with Washington an ability to sing with a directness that avoids self conscious emoting as well as a particular fondness for biting the ends off certain phrases which adds an attractive tension to her otherwise laid back vocalizing. She can also casually stretch a note with Holiday-like finesse and, like Billie, can switch from a croon to a much harder sound in a single phrase.

None of this is meant to suggest the Nalley is simply a throwback to another age of jazz singing but simply that she knows her history and that her virtues are very much of a traditional kind. For example, she is as effective on the swing numbers as on the slower ones – a feature that one takes for granted in a Sarah Vaughan or Tony Bennett who come from an age where singers were expected to record in a whole plethora of styles and to be as effective working with a tight jazz trio as with string laden pop arrangements. Ms Nalley doesn’t get any of the latter here but, on the evidence of this recording, could cut through such lushness with elan rather than be submerged by it in the manner of some of her contemporaries.

Nalley signals her versatility at the outset when she moves from a bright “September In The Rain” – which acknowledges but never apes Dinah – to a languid “At Last.” The (self-penned) title track is a piece of slight but entertainingly performed froth that suggests a vibrant live presence and harks back to a time when singers like Bessie Smith perceived themselves primarily as entertainers. And, with “Goin’ To New York” she proves what Billie Holiday knew half a century before her – that you don’t need a ‘big’ voice to sing the blues.

If Nalley has a weakness, at least in the recording studio, it is a failure to really dig deep into the emotional context of some of her lyrics. Her style works perfectly on up tempo numbers like “Too Close For Comfort” and “Our Day Will Come” (which showcases Dave Mathews’ piano to particularly impressive effect) but, for this listener at least, misses the despair in “Say It Isn’t So” or the edge of desperation in the attractive but rarely performed “I Was Telling Him About You.” For all her occasional affectation, Nancy Wilson still manages to ring emotion from relatively slight material such as this in a way that, for the moment anyway, seems to elude Nalley. But no matter, even Sarah Vaughan was accused of lacking feeling in her early work – and some leveled the charge at Ella for much of her career – so there is plenty of time for Nalley’s interpretative powers to catch up with her undoubted musical gifts and winning personality. To be fair, most of the arrangements are bright and swinging and it may not have been Nalley’s intention to take the listener into darker territory with this album.

Nalley is more than ably supported by her musicians – Jeff Chambers (bass), Kent Bryson (drums) and the previously mentioned Mathews. This recording marks her out as a singer who should continue to impress as her artistry matures–she’s one to watch.

– Mark Jennett

Kim Nalley CD