You need a big sound to sing with a big band. And vocalist Diane Schuur has got the goods.
But a singer also needs a sense of subtlety when backed by an orchestra, a way to present ballads in intimate tones that are strong enough to be heard, yet delicate enough to fit the mood. That subtlety was missing Saturday at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, where Schuur appeared with the Count Basie Orchestra.
Introduced as "the reigning queen of soul," Schuur got off to a healthy start with her trademark number, "Deedles" (her nickname). She sang in a strong, rhythmically smart style peppered with scat before closing with a powerful, long-sustained tone that burrowed deep into the listener's soul.
But as the program progressed, it became apparent that Schuur would work at this same pitch all evening. Each tune was presented at a level just short of full-out. Each finished with a full-out, high-pitched delivery, often at a piercing volume. Even ballads, such as "You'd Be So Easy to Love," were presented at the same dynamic level.
Considered individually, the numbers were all rousing. But following one after another in a stream unbroken by subtler moods, the pieces began to weigh heavily on the ears.
Schuur showed she is master of the blues vocal, her timing and enthusiasm for the material recalling that other great singer who worked with the Basie band, Joe Williams.
She added delicious, soulful touches to the slower numbers, especially "Come Rain or Come Shine," but without over-stylizing. She scatted easily and succinctly and just long enough to show her rhythmic command. Her tone, especially in the mid-alto range, was warm and satisfying.
On higher-pitched tones, especially at the close of each number, her sound became harsh and piercing. Part of this was due to bright amplification. At one point, she asked that the reverb be turned down.
"It sounds like an echo chamber up here," she said from her seat at the piano.
Whatever adjustment was made, it didn't help the sound that reached the audience.
The arrangements gave Schuur plenty of opportunity to show a more reserved, intimate style, but she didn't take advantage. She seemed at her best when the band kicked in at full strength. Her piano work was inconsequential, except for a few decorative phrases added from an electric keyboard perched on the grand where she sat.
Mood was no problem for the Basie Orchestra. Directed by saxophonist Frank Foster, the 19-piece ensemble was in fine, swinging form during its part of the program without Schuur.
Though not an adventurous outing--Foster stuck to signature Basie tunes, including "One O'Clock Jump," "Corner Pocket" and his own "Shiny Stockings"--each number was presented with enthusiasm.
There were several fine solo efforts, some from musicians who looked too young to have seen the band when Foster was a sideman and Basie its leader.
Trumpeter William Barnhart showed some of Wynton Marsalis' technique and fire, while fellow trumpeter Robert Ojeida provided moody muted touches on "Lil' Darlin'."
Trombonist Clarence Banks' antics with the plunger mute enlivened Foster's "Go Git It Y'All," while Foster traded hot licks with tenor saxophonists Doug Miller and Kenneth Hing on "Jumpin' at the Woodside."
Surprisingly, the evening's most swinging piece was not one associated with Basie but, rather, "Sugar Hill Slalom," which Foster wrote for the 1980 Winter Olympics.
The tune allowed guitarist Charlton Johnson to move beyond his usual role as pulse keeper and play tough, rousing blues lines. Alto saxophonist Emmanuel Boyd brought a modern feel to the piece with his rousing, R & B-fired play.
The band's vocalist, Chris Murrell, demonstrated a sense of mood and dynamic tone that was different for each of the three songs he sang. If only Schuur had done the same.