Donnay keeps jazz chops in reserve

Special to The Times

Roberta Donnay has been active as a singer-songwriter and producer since the early ‘90s, releasing five CDs, placing songs in television shows and films and composing the “One World” theme for the United Nations’ 50th anniversary. But although jazz had been a vital part of her youthful listening experience, it didn’t fully surface in her own music until two years ago, when she began working with veteran jazz record producer Orrin Keepnews on her latest album, “What’s Your Story.”

The net result -- in her one-night appearance Sunday at Catalina Bar & Grill -- was a collection of jazz-oriented, jazzaccompanied tunes filtered through a distinctly pop perspective.

Her phrases in some numbers recalled the edgy tones of Janis Joplin; others simmered with the sexy blues styling of Maria Muldaur; and still others surfaced in the coy little-girl sound of Norah Jones. But she was at her best in songs that triggered her own emotional intimacies -- especially “No Regrets” and a slightly overcooked “Drinkin’ Again.”

In most cases, however, Donnay sang a song through once, then turned the proceedings over to her trio -- pianist Jonathan Alford, bassist Jeff Chambers and drummer Deszon Claiborne -- before returning for a final chorus. Often, the trio played a lengthy conclusion after the vocals ended.


Instead of emerging as an equal participant in an ensemble, Donnay ended up in the role of a swing-era singer who serves as an eye- and ear-candy adjunct to an instrumental ensemble.

Worse, the approach rarely afforded Donnay the chance to embark on the creative variations that are the essence of imaginative jazz vocalizing. One suspects -- from the fragmentary evidence surfacing now and then -- that she has the chops to do so. But, if so, she kept them far too deeply in reserve.