Gallinger Seeks Magic in the Music : Jazz: The South Laguna vocalist, appearing in Laguna Beach tonight, looks for those transcendent moments when the tune takes over.


The way Karen Gallinger sees it, there are basically two ways of singing: You’re either on or you’re off.

“When I’m not on, I rely on technique, and the whole thing is an intellectual exercise,” said the singer, a South Laguna resident who appears tonight at Laguna Village.

“It sounds OK,” she said. “You might not be able to tell, but I’m in my head, self-conscious. It’s like I’m the one that’s driving the experience.

“But when I’m on, when it’s really happening for me, singing transcends that intellectual, technical space, and I move into a completely different kind of experience, which becomes more sensual, where I’m more fully present. Then the music is doing the driving; it’s speaking through me, using me as a instrument, a conduit.”


Gallinger, a professional singer for about two decades, chases such moments because “those times are so magical. . . . I’m always trying to find situations and environments where that can happen, or is likely to happen.”

Gallinger has discovered that although she can get into this extraordinary realm during an engagement where she delivers pop material, it’s more likely to occur when she’s working in her preferred genre: jazz.

“There’s a constant exploration that can happen with jazz,” she said. “It’s challenging. It gives you a framework where there are always new possibilities.”

Possessing a contralto that allows her to hit low, deep tones as well as high, pencil-thin ones, Gallinger has been known to take a lot of liberties with tunes.


On a standard such as “My Shining Hour,” Gallinger might extend some lyrics, compressing longer phrases into short temporal spaces.

These experiments result in unusual musical perceptions for Gallinger.

“When I play with the lyrics and the melody, I make new textures,” she said. “Music is very sensual, sometimes to the point that I’ll sense sound as spatial, as if it were square, or moving in blocks, or round and fluid.”

She can impart gusto into a dashing evergreen like “Shining Hour” or a drop-dead blues such as “Every Day I Have the Blues.” One of her admirers is bassist Luther Hughes, who has worked with her numerous times and often books her into Vinnie’s clubs in Laguna Hills, where she returns Aug. 13 and 14.


“Karen is super-charged; she’s a ball of energy,” Hughes said. “She’s listened to all the greats, and she has an awful lot of talent.”

Gallinger said she loves to do an explosive blues. “There I can vent, maybe make up lyrics, maybe to tell somebody off if I want. It’s like talking to the people,” she said.

The vocalist, who was born in Venice and reared in Huntington Beach, said she’s at her strongest on intimate ballads.

“In those songs you find moments of clarity and simplicity that balance the high adrenaline that comes with the energized tunes,” she said. “Ballads are the other end of the spectrum, like a quiet space where you go and you breathe.”


Gallinger said it’s only within the past year that she has focused on jazz. Before, she made her living mainly singing pop tunes and teaching--and she still does.

Last year, she decided to take control of her life. She ended a nine-year relationship, moved from Garden Grove to South Laguna, and began actively seeking out jazz venues. She said she feels like a new person.

“I had to do it,” she said. “Jazz is what I love, what I want to do. I want to sing music that I care about to people who want to hear it. I’d rather work in a room where there’s hardly anyone than in a place that’s jammed but nobody’s listening.”

* Karen Gallinger and vocalist-keyboardist Lynda Roth will play tonight at 6 at Laguna Village, 577 S. Coast Highway, Laguna Beach. $20 to $25. A portion of the proceeds will benefit the Design Alliance to Combat AIDS (DACA). (714) 497-5996.