Olstead at 16 remains precocious yet wiser

Special to The Times

Renee Olstead has come a long way since she first startled jazz fans in 2003 with the stunning maturity of her singing. There’s nothing unusual about artistic growth in a performer, of course, but what makes Olstead’s progress so remarkable is that she is only 16.

Her appearance before a packed house at the elegant Vibrato Grill & Jazz in Bel-Air on Wednesday was the offering of a rapidly maturing singer. Clearly benefiting from working with such established music figures as producers David Foster (who sang and played a number with her) and Bobby Colomby and trumpeter Chris Botti (she solos on Botti’s latest album), Olstead has dramatically increased her stylistic range in the last three years.

Working with a talented young ensemble, she sang tunes from her first album, added some she wrote with Foster and spiced the program with several romping blues numbers. What was most convincing, however, was not so much the variety of the material but Olstead’s skill at adapting to the differing songs.

Her ballads were particularly entrancing. On “Skylark,” for example, her vocal emphasis reached from whisper-soft intimacy to open-throated passion. More rhythmic numbers -- “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby?,” “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” “Alright, Okay, You Win” -- were driven by Olstead’s briskly swinging phrasing. And her song selection was broad enough to include Bill Withers’ 1971 R&B; hit “Ain’t No Sunshine.”


The question that always arises with extremely young performers is how they will evolve from the bubble of precocity into the complex world of maturity. Olstead has had the vocal instrument of an adult for several years. She is displaying convincing signs of bringing a similarly grown-up perspective to her lyric readings.

Her renderings of “Stormy Weather” and “A Sunday Kind of Love” revealed a growth beyond the cuteness of a pubescent teen singing a love song, reaching instead close to the realm of ageless balladry.

And that’s a good sign for the future of this talented young woman.