Anika Noni Rose
When big-name singers come to the Jazz Bakery, Catalina Bar and Grill, the Hollywood Bowl — think Dianne Reeves, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Carmen Lundy — jazz regulars turn out in significant numbers not only to enjoy the music but also, of necessity, to support this undersupported genre.
There are others who come to town — nonjazz artists — who deserve all the attention we heap on jazz divas. And over the last few weeks, two of those have graced L.A at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica.
One was Lizz Wright; the other, Anika Noni Rose.
The Wright Way
It was a rather different Lizz Wright from the one who opened up the Walt Disney Concert Hall’s jazz series last October in the “Sing the Truth!” celebration with Angélique Kidjo and Dianne Reeves. The three opened with an updated — and unbelievably more funkified — version of (Sly Stone’s) Little Sister’s “Bold Soul Sister.” That collaborative appearance was a tribute to three recently passed legends — Miriam Makeba, Abbey Lincoln and Odetta.
Some listeners do Wright’s voice an injustice when they nonchalantly compare it to Tracy Chapman’s and India.Arie’s, two other brilliant talents. Wright’s gift, however, is her alto-contralto range and the folk, rock and even honky-tonk hillbilly musical choices that define her now. Other listeners may think she’s (unfortunately) totally abandoned the jazz tendencies of her earliest productions. But she hasn’t — she’s simply in a space now where she’s exploring other musical genres and defining herself anew.
First off, if you’ve never seen her, The Verve Records artist is a stunningly beautiful, short-natural-haired young woman who’s got a rich, chocolaty velvet voice that was surprisingly perfect for her opening number, of all things “Old Man Take a Look at My Life” by rock legend Neil Young.
Then, accompanied by Nicholas D’Amato (bass), Robin Macatangay (guitar), Glenn Patscha (keyboards) and Brannen Temple (drums), Wright sang that she “just wanted to have a good time” before clapping her way into a funky gospel version of “Walk With Me, Lord.” She’s a “PK” (a preacher’s kid) from, she said, “the back woods” (of Hahira, Ga.) so there was never a doubt that she’d do this selection justice.
What’s most refreshing about Wright is her nonreliance on — practically speaking, non-use of — the melismas that typify (and distract from) so much of the music of her pop and hip-hop contemporaries. That she sang mournful, moanin’ style on “Hit the Ground” in the richer, lower registers, was, well, waaay cool.
In her 90-minute set, she showcased tunes from all four of her CDs—“Salt,” “Dreaming Wide Awake,” “The Orchard” and “Fellowship” — showing off her jazz and R&B and gospel spins on what are well-known folk music and rock hits. And her story-telling lyrics on “Trouble” in the air—“But I got to breathe … I’m gonna ride this pain like a wave” — pointed up the singer’s capable songwriting abilities.
Look in the future for a cover of a tune that she said she’d heard Etta James do called “It Makes No Difference” and that she’s “going to build a record around …” Before singing it, Wright said that she wanted “to take her time and celebrate this song”: “It makes no difference where I turn, I can’t get over you and the flame still burns …” Definitely one of James’ torch songs, right?
One wishes that by the time she sang her final uptempo number, “Coming home,” it wasn’t time to go. Don’t miss her when she next appears ’round L.A.
A Sweet Rose
Anika Noni Rose has won a Tony (for Tony Kushner’s “Caroline, or Change” on Broadway) and an Obie for the off-Broadway production of the Laura Nyro play “Eli’s Comin.’”
She played Yasmine, the rape victim, to great acclaim in “Tyler Perry’s For Colored Girls,” based on the stage play by Ntozake Shange. There was also her outstanding turn as Lorell Robinson role in the film version of “Dreamgirls.”
She was recently nominated for two 2012 NAACP Image Awards, one for “Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series” for her work on “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.” And you can currently see her as Assistant District Attorney Wendy Scott-Carr on “The Good Wife” and as Taye Diggs’ bipolar sister Corrine on “Private Practice.”
[Note: If you want to see two spectacular performers bring theatricality to their small screen roles, just watch Diggs and Rose’s dialogues on “Practice.”]
And don’t forget her Meryl Streep accent turn as Grace Makutsi in the Botswana- (Africa) filmed drama “No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency,” which HBO regrettably failed to pick up for another season some years ago.
But unless you heard her voice Disney’s first African American royalty, Princess Tiana, in “The Princess and the Frog,” you haven’t heard Anika Noni Rose sing much, have you?
You should. Now that her acting schedule has brought Rose temporarily to L.A., you’ve got to catch her when she next performs here. In her outing at The Broad, she was the special guest vocalist with Jason Robert Brown, who The New York Times has hailed as “one of Broadway’s smartest and most sophisticated songwriters since Stephen Sondheim.”
After a couple of opening numbers, Brown introduced her by explaining that the two (along with his tight-sounding band) had worked together at New York’s Birdland Jazz Club and in London’s West End and thought they’d try their luck here with a medley of his greatest hits from Broadway fare, like songs from “13” and the Tony Award-winning “Parade.”
While Rose may have played a hard-boiled ADA on “L&O,” in person she’s a soft-looking, petite and lithe performer, at The Broad decked out in a shortish gold dress and matching 4-” heels.
On duets with Brown, her voice was light and sweet, though she threw down some serious gospel riffs on “All Things in Time,” and she soared on “Brand New You” and “Caravan of Angels,” not shy about showing off a little hip action here and there.
Their last duet was Brown’s powerful “Christmas Lullaby” lyrics, delivered by a sweet Rose:
“I’ll never have the power to control the landOr conquer half the world or claim the sunI’ll never be the kind who simply waves her handAnd has a million people do the things I wish I’d doneBut in the eyes of heaven, my place is assuredI carry with me Heaven’s grand designGloria, Gloria, I will sing the name of the LordAnd He will make me shine.”