When I first reached Los Angeles an indecipherable number of years ago and sought guidance on the local artistic high spots, veteran observers referred me to a night emporium called Marshall Edson's Ye Little Club, not far from the office in Beverly Hills.
This was because, in that season, a tall and regal woman named Ruth Olay was singing jazz there and was not to be missed. And how good and true the guidance was.
The narrow, deep, dark and relaxed club is long gone, and if my geography is correct there is an up-market Italian restaurant where once it stood. But the tall and regal Ruth Olay still sings jazz and is, perhaps more than ever, not to be missed.
She sang at the Vine St. Bar & Grill in Hollywood Sunday night and she will be there again next Sunday night, accompanied as she has been in several recent years by pianist Doug Talbert and his trio (Bob Maize on bass, Paul Humphrey, with his lightning wire brushes, on drums).
When a vocalist and her accompaniment have worked together a long time, and well, the effect is no longer of voice and trio but of a quartet of voices, interweaving like a jazz chamber ensemble. Or maybe a quartet of instruments, because Olay, her rich voice ranging from flute-high to cello-deep, has always seemed even more a free-flowing melodist than a word-bound teller of lyrics.
She caresses lyrics movingly, if occasionally even to the point of over-elaboration, but, like Ella Fitzgerald and Mavis Rivers and the very small handful of her other peers, she seems most potent when she is delivering a crystal cascade of lovely sound.
She did more wordless scat-singing once than she does now, but there were bursts of it Sunday night, like a powerful seasoning used sparingly. On a very fast version of "Just You, Just Me," she scatted in close harmony with Talbert's piano, and it was witty, startling and teasingly fine.
These are well-charted waters she works. Talbert does the arrangements, which are well tempered to Olay's vocal agilities, and also to his own powerful and fluid piano style, a kind of electric eclecticism that variously incorporates locked-hands marching chords, barrelhouse shakes and, suddenly, a cool, quiet, Basie-like one-finger line.
Olay can sing the very blazes out of a slow ballad, as she did on "Love Wants to Dance" and "Happiness Is Just a Thing Called Joe" the other night. She often takes a dreamily slow version first, exercising her patented soaring and swooping glissandi (a word I stole when Martin Bernheimer wasn't looking) and her potent vibrato (ditto), cutting then to a hard-driving fast tempo for the finish.
With her new, short haircut and artfully tousled look, she now and again resembles a better-nourished Edith Piaf. And there is always, lurking behind the breezy, jazzy confidence, a strong hint of vulnerability and melancholy, of bedeviled romances and other items of fortune.
Indeed, the way of the very good jazz singer is no smoother now than it ever has been, which is why it is so heartening that Olay has hung in there and grown better.
For some years she took her voice to Copenhagen, which, like most of Europe, has been more hospitable to great American jazz talents than the home folks. But even there she pressed jeans in a laundry to pay the rent between gigs.
Back home again, she has paid the rent as a career civil servant in a federal agency. But her heart, now as in those distant days at Ye Little Club, belongs to jazz. Sunday night, with a full house of reverentially quiet admirers out front, and with the trio not so much behind her as joined with her, she was a study in joy, and these are very hard to find.
The Vine St. number is (213) 463-4375.