Impressive debut for a precocious chanteuse

Special to The Times

The catchwords circulating lately around the new-talent departments of most jazz record companies have been on the order of "young," "female" and "crossover." How could it be otherwise, after the successes of Norah Jones, a jazz-trained singer who had a hit with a country-tinged album, and the rapidly emerging Lizz Wright, both in their early 20s?

So, if it worked for the twentysomethings, why not look even younger -- at, say, early teens -- someone like 13-year-old Renee Olstead. Familiar to TV viewers of the CBS sitcom "Still Standing," the singer-actress made her live debut Saturday as the opening night performer in the Pasadena Jazz Institute's 2003-04 season.

With a signing by Warner Bros. Records and an association with veteran record producer David Foster reportedly in the works, the obvious question was what to expect from such a relatively youthful artist, especially in the demanding realm of jazz.

Performing with a five-piece back-up band before a full house, Renee -- who doesn't look a day over her age (she will be 14 this month) -- offered convincing answers from her very first note.

Although her between-song comments were sweetly demure (including little curtsies after each number), her vocal renderings had a far more mature, old-soul quality.

Singing with a pliant sound, imaginative interpretive qualities and a convincing rhythmic surge, her versions of tunes such as "At Last," "Sentimental Journey" and "Cry Me a River" demanded no concessions because of her age.

And in the evening's most impressive number, a touching reading of "Smile," Renee offered a forecast of her extraordinary potential.

The downside of the program was the less-than-compelling choice of material, which tended to emphasize well-worn numbers over music that might allow her considerable talent to soar. But Renee is a real find. Expect to hear much more from this precocious young artist.

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