Morgana King may be best known from her performances as Mama Corleone in the first two “Godfather” films, and--to a somewhat lesser extent--for her ‘60s hit version of “Taste of Honey.” Both before and after her film and pop music successes, however, King has been an intriguing jazz singer, one of a handful of artists with almost instantly recognizable styles.
King has been making only rare appearances lately as a performer, but she turned up at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel’s Cinegrill on Sunday evening for an event that was both a performance and a 70th birthday celebration. And her singing was as unique as ever, her sound as idiosyncratic as it was in her pre-"Taste of Honey” jazz days, her capacity to interpret and illuminate a song still first-rate.
Working with guitarist John Chiodini, bassist Jim Hughart (both of whom had just completed a four-day run with another distinctive singer, Bob Dorough) and longtime associate Joe Carrero on drums, King offered a program dominated by familiar standards. But, in her carefully crafted renderings, each emerged with sparkling new facets. Even a rock-era pop ballad such as Leon Russell’s “A Song for You” became considerably more than a Top 40 number, as King reached past the sometimes disjointed lyrics to find the emotional heart of the song.
She was even better with a Portuguese version of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Corcovado,” a richly textured reading of Bernard Ighner’s “Everything Must Change,” a gently floating “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” (by George and Ira Gershwin) and a medley that combined Rodgers & Hart’s “My Funny Valentine” with Billy Preston’s “You Are So Beautiful.”
The songs were sung in a style that blended King’s high, wispy soprano passages with her sensual chest tones and occasional spoken phrases. Although she offered a few scat singing passages, her musical imagination was far more expressive in her melodic variations--in her crafting of melodies that derived from, but were different from, the original themes. And what really made it all come together was the combination of that gift for musical paraphrase with the unerring sense of swing in her phrasing and her convincing storytelling. It was, in sum, the performance of a vital, authoritative musical artist.