on 13 August 2004
Stacey Kent never intended to be a jazz singer. She was on course for a career in academia, but through an unexpected twist of fate, she found herself enrolled at the Guildhall School of Music with Jim Tomlinson, who would later become her husband and musical soul mate. The rest, as they say, is history. Today, the London-based New Yorker has six bestselling solo albums to her credit, a clutchful of jazz awards on her mantelpiece, and continues to perform to sellout audiences across the world.
Ms Kent's unique, distinctive style could best be described as classic chic; the musical equivalent of the "little black dress". Just as the little black dress has the power to let a woman's personality shine through, Ms Kent's delicately nuanced interpretations of the Great American Songbook eloquently showcase the complex melodies and classy, sophisticated lyrics of American popular music during its golden ages.
Vocally, Ms Kent has never sounded better. And there is so much to admire: her dulcet-toned mezzo soprano, with its shimmery jazz lilt and translucent vibrato, her innate sense of swing and instinctive timing, her subtly shaded line readings, and the exquisite delicacy of her phrasing. A master storyteller and communicator, Ms Kent also brings a comparative literature graduate's acute interpretive skills to her singing, eschewing shopworn sentimentality for a piquant romantic lyricism.
Ms Kent's latest album, "The Boy Next Door", is a heartfelt and reverent tribute to her musical heroes, which include legendary crooners Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, octogenarian jazz master Dave Brubeck and Manhattan cabaret doyen Bobby Short. The stylish jazz chanteuse's repertoire also finds her working outside the Great American Songbook for the first time, with contributions from latter-day pop songwriters Burt Bacharach, Paul Simon and Carole King. Ms Kent puts her own indelible stamp on each number as she weaves her magic on a delectable collection of pop-jazz standards that encompass infatuation, seduction, love, loss and reminiscence.
"The Best Is Yet To Come", the opening track of this album, begins with a beguiling quietness. Abetted by Dave Chamberlain's supple, tantalizing bass line, Ms Kent's wonderfully lithe voice floats across the melody in light, flirtatious tones. "The best is yet to come, and babe won't it be fine," croons Ms Kent seductively, and you know she's on to a winner. The cheeky uptown swagger and brash bravado that Tony Bennett brought to the number have been replaced by a relaxed, confident sexuality as she sashays appealingly through Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh's zesty, jazz-inflected tune, which also features a brisk, scintillating piano solo by David Newton.
"The Trolley Song", so long regarded as Judy Garland's signature tune, has been dusted off the shelves and given a new life by Matt Home's punchy, throbbing beat. Ms Kent registers a thrilling sense of giddy exhilaration here, with Tomlinson's playful obbligatos dancing around her sparkling vocals. As she peals joyfully through the Irving Berlin swinger, you can just imagine Ms Kent, with her elfin figure and puckish smile, as the fresh-faced ingénue whose adventure on public transportation would inevitably change her life, and Tomlinson as the dapper, dashing gentleman who sweeps Ms Kent off her feet.
"Too Darn Hot", Cole Porter's second-act showstopper from "Kiss Me, Kate", pulses with a palpable sense of urgency that underpins the edgy, syncopated rhythms of the song. Ms Kent's vocals are preceded by a catchy, insinuating jazz riff, and she infuses the number with a restless, insistent energy. Her effervescence and vivacity are a perfect match for Porter's vocal dexterity, wit, warmth and humor; nowhere is this more evident than in "You're The Top", which in her capable hands, is transformed into a patter song.
In a funky, bluesy version of "Makin' Whoopee", Ms Kent pounces on the dire warning to would-be Romeos lurking beneath the song's playful surface: that once the honeymoon is over, marriage can become a trap from which there is no escape. Or in the language of song: "Now don't forget folks, that's what you get folks, for makin' whoopee," she notes wryly, and with a knowing smile.
If the upbeat numbers on the album showcase Ms Kent and her formidable jazz sidemen at their collective best, it is the ballads which highlight the sublime musical partnership she has forged with her husband.
Ms Kent brings a slight shade of huskiness and just a touch of midnight intimacy to "Say It Isn't So" as she implores her lover to come clean, directly and painfully, with Tomlinson's horn providing a haunting melodic counterpoint to her fragile, melancholic lamentations.
"People Will Say We're In Love" has been reconfigured as a sultry, breathless bossa nova, where Ms Kent's demure vocals are elegantly framed by Colin Oxley's warm, flesh-toned chords and thoughtfully punctuated by Tomlinson's lustrous solo.
"'Tis Autumn" is a lush, gentle meditation on the arrival of fall, which Ms Kent infuses with the enveloping warmth and softness of a pashmina worn on a crisp October morning. Taken at a languorous pace, it is beautifully lucid and sensuously dreamy.
Ms Kent receives impeccable support from her sleek, urbane jazz quintet, whose rhythmic fluency is further enhanced by the tasteful, literate arrangements. Newton and Tomlinson, both accomplished musicians in their own right, also display hitherto unknown musical talents as they join Curtis Schwartz to provide tongue-in-cheek backing vocals for Ms Kent's deliciously bouncy rendition of "Ooh-Shoo-Be-Doo-Bee".
It is difficult to imagine Ms Kent's future releases surpassing "The Boy Next Door". Fortunately, she has provided live audiences with a glimpse of what may be in store: a blissfully idyllic "Tea for Two", a quietly contemplative "What Are You Doing For The Rest Of Your Life?" and a touchingly poignant "Garden In The Rain". Could it be that, as she sings, "the best is yet to come?" I certainly hope so!