What passes as style these days among vocalists, especially the reigning pop divas, is usually no more than the designless application of ungenuine emotion sung at unnecessary volumes with added swoops, shrieks and mangled enunciation to underline the effect.
Because Sandra Booker relied on none of the above during her first set Friday at Maxwell’s, her performance was an unusually satisfying treat.
First off, Booker is no pop singer. Having moved here from New Orleans in 1986, where she attended the New Orleans Creative Center for the Arts a year behind Harry Connick Jr., she’s been very active on the L.A. club circuit in the last year. Working with frequent partner, pianist Frank Collett and his trio, the 24-year-old vocalist (celebrating her birthday Friday) stuck to jazz standards and the Great American Songbook--"How High the Moon,” “Night and Day,” “Lullaby of Birdland"--covering the territory as if she grew up with it.
Also, Booker has plenty of style. But it’s not the exaggerated sort. Instead it seems to spring from real emotion at just the right point in the lyric. All through her nine-number set, Booker made sure the emphasis was on the song and not the singer.
She opened with to-the-point, almost reserved ways on Ralph Freed-Burton Lane’s "(I Like New York in June) How About You,” her voice warm and a bit breathy, her phrasing relaxed and cozy. From there, her voice began to add character, deepening for “How High the Moon,” taking on more intimate tones during the ballad “When Sonny Gets Blue.”
By the time she reached “Lullaby of Birdland,” she was messing with the rhythm and the melody, placing phrases in unexpected places, her voice bobbing up and down a full octave before moving to the next word.
During an exchange with Collett, she scatted with trumpet-like tones that turned on broad vowel sounds and offbeat placement.
There were times when her voice recalled the youthful sound of Ella Fitzgerald (“Bluesette”) or the richness of Sarah Vaughn (“On a Clear Day”). But Booker’s voice has so much character that she never seemed derivative.
Her most impressive number was the closer, Miles Davis’ “Four.” Though done at breakneck speed, the singer moved easily through Jon Hendrick’s lyric, then scatted up a storm. Despite the pace, her voice worked a wide field of expression, hot and pointed here, full and embracing there.
Collett’s responses to the singer’s workout were a tight toe-to-toe dance with all the moving grace of Astaire and Rogers.
Collett, who has been working with Booker for the last year, has a suave, self-assured style and an open-minded style of accompaniment. The trio, with bassist Bruce Lett and drummer Nick Martinis, was tight and responsive. Working without Booker, the threesome turned in a somewhat disguised version of “All of You” that featured the pianist swinging around the keys like a kid on a jungle gym.
Lett’s ruddy tone made a fine match for Booker as the two opened “How High the Moon” as a duo. Martinis, known for his taste and drive, lived up to the reputation, enlivening exchanges with sharp snare accents and cymbal shadings.
With her genuine sense of expression and a voice with more personality than a Miss America finalist, Booker seems destined for great things. Catch her locally while you can.