Kansas City singer Kevin Mahogany frequently earns comparisons to the legendary singer who shares his hometown, Big Joe Turner. Mahogany even played a character modeled after Turner in Robert Altman’s 1996 jazz-noir film “Kansas City.”
But to think of Mahogany as a throwback blues shouter would be a mistake. His opening performance of a two-night run Friday at Founders Hall in the Orange County Performing Arts Center played down his power while playing up his sensitivity.
Of course, Mahogany is pushing a new Warner Bros. album of ballads (“My Romance”), so showing his sensitive side worked to his--and the audience’s--advantage. The singer’s marvelously rich and varied tone made deep impressions on a variety of slow and mid-tempo numbers.
Mahogany displayed a range of influences: the bounce of Joe Williams, the suaveness of Billy Eckstine, the caramel-colored tones of Johnny Hartman. There was even some of Turner’s particularly Kansas City feel for the blues.
But Mahogany proved himself bound to none of these influences. Instead, the 40-year-old singer extended the tradition of jazz vocals with his characteristic tonal qualities, nimble phrasing and improvisational wit, adding contemporary touches to classic American songs.
His tone was deep and dark in the lower register, clear and airy (and occasionally short of pitch) in the upper. In the middle register, it rang with an especially attractive, Hartman-like warmth.
Ballads including “Our Love Is Here to Stay” and the Eckstine hit “Everything I Have Is Yours” gave Mahogany plenty of opportunity to dwell on certain notes, and he did so with clarity and a barely detectable vibrato.
Only once during the evening, on “Since I Fell in Love With You,” did Mahogany flex his muscles, building steadily into a sustained tone that grew louder as he moved away from the microphone. Other than this not-so-subtle display of strength, he kept to a gentlemanly, decidedly unshouting level.
Mahogany seemed impatient on the few up-tempo tunes he did, often rushing ahead of the beat and leaving one of the members of his instrumental quartet to fill in. He kicked along smartly, recalling a bit of Turner, on Fats Domino’s “I’m Walkin’.” And he scatted with abandon on the evening’s most upbeat number, Mahogany’s own “Still Swingin’.”
The singer was at his most inventive while scatting, especially on the few up-tempo numbers. Agile and full of ideas, he brought the same winning qualities of tone and phrasing that mark his lyric presentations and turned them into an instrumental-like attack. Not afraid to take chances, Mahogany, who once studied clarinet and saxophone, worked with a wide vocabulary of sounds and syllables, often applied at double-time. His improvised trades with guitarist Dave Stryker during “Nature Boy” were unusually responsive.
Mahogany’s band blended personal strengths and collaborative skills, matching the singer’s enthusiasm with vigor of their own. Pianist Alan Pasqua used a minimalist approach, letting Mahogany’s voice lead the way. Guitarist Stryker added harmonic depth and wiry, electric solos. Stryker’s arrangement of “Nature Boy” was the evening’s most modern statement.
Bassist Tyrone Clark shared a tonal connection with Mahogany, often striking a unison note to vibrate against his voice. Clark and drummer Todd Strait kept the music grounded no matter where Mahogany’s phrasing led.
With so few serious male vocalists having emerged in the last generation, it’s good to have Kevin Mahogany around. In him, the tradition of Hartman, Eckstine and yes, Big Joe Turner, lives on.