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Vocalist Nicolas Bearde's New CD, "Live at Yoshi's: A Salute to Lou," Due May 20

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A charter member of Bobby McFerrin's Voicestra ensemble as well as the innovative Bay Area vocal sextet SoVoS, Nicolas Bearde has long been recognized as an adept and fearless vocal improviser.

But Bearde is a down-to-earth soul stylist as well. On his new CD, “Live at Yoshi's: A Salute to Lou," which is due for release on May 20 by his own Right Groove Records, Bearde delivers a vibrant set of Lou Rawls-associated material before a full house at Oakland's premier jazz club.

“I admire the man's work and his ability to have his feet in several genres at the same time," says Bearde of Rawls. “Jazz, blues, soul, pop, gospel--Lou was able to tie those styles together, make something of his own, and make it popular. Back in the era he started in, with Sam Cooke and those guys, he took the blues and gospel influences he'd come up with and brought them into the present. Those were the underpinnings of his sound."

While growing up in Nashville, Bearde was particularly fond of “Lou Rawls Live!," the classic 1966 Capitol recording that stands as the highest charting album of the late singer's prolific career. “That was the one that crystallized for me what a male jazz/blues vocalist was about," Bearde explains.

“Live at Yoshi's: A Salute to Lou" contains Bearde's distinctive interpretations of five songs that were part of Lou Rawls Live! ("The Girl from Ipanema," “The Shadow of Your Smile," “World of Trouble," “Tobacco Road," “I'd Rather Drink Muddy Water") as well as other numbers closely associated with Rawls, including “Lady Love," “Love Is a Hurtin' Thing," “This Song Will Last Forever," and “You'll Never Find Another Love Like Mine."

The album's lead track is a non-Rawls tune with a special significance for Bearde: Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln's “Living Room." “Jazz vocalist Buddy Conner was the first person I heard do that song, back in the '80s," says the vocalist. “It's been in my repertoire ever since. In fact, Buddy gave me his chart for it. It's not so much a tribute to him, but every time I do the song, I think of him. He was the cat who opened the door for me as a jazz singer in the Bay Area."

On the new CD, Bearde is backed by four of his favorite instrumentalists: saxophonist Charles McNeal, pianist Glenn Pearson, bassist Nelson Braxton, and drummer Jason Lewis.

Bearde, who's been based in the San Francisco Bay Area since the 1970s, followed a somewhat circuitous path to a career as a singer. In 1984 he was asked to be part of Jukebox, a play staged by Berkeley radio station KPFA. The live radio broadcast brought together film and theater people, musicians from all over the Bay Area, and sound effects specialists.

“Danny Glover was the star, and this was while he was filming the first 'Lethal Weapon,'" says Bearde. “That was where acting came into my life, when I started to look at acting as a vehicle I wanted to pursue." At Glover's recommendation, he began studying with Jean Shelton; a year later, he went on his first audition and was cast in the Athol Fugard play “Master Harold and the Boys." (He continues to maintain a busy sideline as an actor for stage, screen, and television and as a voice-over artist.)

By the mid-1980s, he'd hooked up with Bobby McFerrin's Voicestra, an association that continues to the present. “What we do is completely improvised, from note one to note 2001," he says of the a cappella group. “There's no preplanning, no preparation." He continues to tour with the ensemble, with about a month of major concerts throughout the world every year, depending on McFerrin's schedule. “The most recent tour was in March 2008," says Bearde. “Last year, we spent almost four months touring."

When McFerrin decided to take a break from the group in the mid-'90s, Bearde and other members branched off into a smaller a cappella unit called SoVoS, which included Molly Holm, Linda Tillery, Rhiannon, Joey Blake, David Worm, and Edgardo Cambon. “We followed in the improvisational tradition of Voicestra, but added more gospel, Latin, and R&B elements," he says.

Bearde launched Right Groove Records in 1998. His debut solo release, “Crossing the Line," garnered glowing reviews on both sides of the Atlantic. Licensed to Expansion Records in the U.K., it landed in the Top 10 of a British soul chart. The 2004 follow-up, “All About Love" (also issued on Expansion), was especially well received in Canada and in North and South Carolina. England's Blues & Soul magazine declared of Bearde, “He's a breath of fresh air amidst a mass of polluted ozone-unfriendly pop." In 1998, Bearde placed high on the influential publication's list of Best Male Newcomers.

“Live at Yoshi's: A Salute to Lou," Bearde's third Right Groove release, is more jazz-oriented than its predecessors. “In general I'm doing more jazz singing these days," he explains, “but I can never step away from R&B completely."

Nicolas Bearde returns to Yoshi's Oakland for a CD Release event on 6/3. He'll also be performing at Bach Dancing & Dynamite Society in Half Moon Bay 5/25, and at the Comcast Jazz Festival in San Jose on 8/29.

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