That's the recipe for one utterly delightful jazz singer and it's not a made-up formula. Canada's Irene Atman has emerged from the Dizzy's Jazz Club oven as the real thing, a formidable talent who combines the gifts of her more famous sisters in swing, then adds her own considerable talents and experience.
Appearing for three concerts this month at Dizzy's as part of a national tour, Irene played to large and appreciative crowds. How could they not appreciate what they were hearing? Although Australia boasts some very fine female vocalists, it's very rare to find one our top singers who is able to phrase exceptionally well, improvise effectively AND 'sell' the lyrics to us with the panache that Irene demonstrated on this memorable weekend.
Highlights abounded: Her heartfelt readings of three utterly lovely Michel Legrand compositions of the 1960s (one sung partly in French) stand as the definitive vocal versions of these treasures. Fortunately, two of them are on her new CD. She showed her up-tempo mastery with a bouncy version of If I Were A Bell", a tune that no less a giant than Miles Davis made into a jazz standard. Richard Rodgers' gem I Could Write a Book" gave Irene a chance to play with the tune in some daring and risk-taking melodic invention. Carmen McRae, a wonderful risk-taker herself, would have been proud.
Irene's time touring with Tony Bennett left her with some deep and significant impressions. One of them is the innate drama she brings to a ballad. How often have we seen jazz singers these days proffer the lyrics with little or no involvement in what they are actually singing? On the other side of the ledger are the pop 'agony' singers (do I hear the name Celine Dion?), who possess great chops but over-act to the point of parody. Irene's gift is that she strikes that marvelous middle ground, guiding us along the emotional path of the lyrics without dragging us into the bushes and beating our heads with them. She lets US feel the words and the ideas; those timeless lyrics are the better for it.
No singer can work effectively without first-rate backing. Irene was blessed to have two Canadian powerhouses contributing: pianist Richard Whiteman is a mature and eloquent soloist who also accompanies singers to perfection (the two skills are rarely found in the same individual - Hank Jones and Tommy Flanagan come to mind, along with Richard). Bassist Jack Zorawski is a paragon of effective swing and simple good taste. For him, no flashy show-off solos, no unwanted domination of the ensemble, just a reliable steady beat and fine chordal support at the bottom end.
When the last concert finished, talk immediately began - when is she coming back? The answer could be sooner than you think. November is a possibility, next year a virtual certainty. When a treat like Irene and her trio is on the menu, everyone will be voting for a second helping.
Steve Robertson (longtime jazz writer and presenter of PBS-FM's, Melbourne, Australia, Jazz On Saturday)