Morgan James :: Broadway at Birdland
If you’ve lived in New York long enough, there are performances indelibly carved into your memory, touchstones that remind you why you endure New York and why you continue to frequent cabarets, theatres, and performance halls. The night that a very young Whitney ruled Carnegie Hall, for example, and the Valentine’s Day at Birdland, when a largely unknown Canadian singer named Diana Krall handed out long-stemmed roses to her audience.
When you’re in attendance at one of these performances, there’s often an adrenaline buzz that courses through the audience, bonding patrons with the awareness that this is a performance, this is a night, long to be remembered - and you were there.
Morgan James. That’s the name. With a voice as soulful as Aretha and a range as wide as Whitney’s, Morgan James also possesses the interpretive chops of confessional singers such as Laura Nyro, Janis Ian, Melissa Etheridge, and more recently, Adele and Lizz Wright.
All of which would be quite a package right there - and yet, there’s no ignoring the fact of James’s stunning physicality. Imagine a bombshell as sexy as Jessica Rabbit, with a mane of blonde hair as lustrous as a shampoo commercial, striding onto a stage in a form-fitting Azzedine Alaia number that silhouettes every curve.
Now, imagine this gorgeous woman opening her mouth and reaching down, way down, deep into her inner soul and revealing the pain of love gone bad. That voice is a revelation, and when combined with the soulful persona that is Morgan James, the combination is a femme fatale whose voice takes you to the very bone of existence.
James has been making her mark on New York audiences with a handful of sold-out engagements at boites like le Poisson Rouge and Dominion. Her recent performance at Birdland, as a part of Jim Caruso’s "Broadway at Birdland" series, was her debut at the illustrious jazz club - and as homage, James climbed on a stool, kicked off her stiletto pumps, and gave the crowd a wrenching version of "Ill Wind" that evoked both Billie and Lena, while, at the same time, remaining determinedly fixed within the core of James’s own being.
As a performer, James was trained at Juilliard, which, as she told the sold-out crowd, was where she fixed her sights as early as fourteen, telling her voice teacher, "That’s where I’m going." That kind of fierce determination and ambition marks James’s approach to performing. As comfortable singing Bernstein’s "Mass" with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra as she is on a cabaret stage, James also starred with the original cast in the Broadway musical "The Addams Family" and is soon to appear in Frank Wildhorn’s "Wonderland" - and while Broadway might well want to hold onto James (and with good reason - that voice reaches effortlessly to the rafters), it’s going to be James who decides what’s best for her expansive talents.
Singing several song selections from Katie Thompson, one of her favorite songwriters, James brought a reverent hush over Birdland, which is, after all, a supper club. Not a ping of crystal disturbed James’s heartfelt declamations of love for bad men, mean men, "the meanest man I ever seen." Her version of Thompson’s "Make Me Hate You" was as raw as anything by Tracy Nelson.
And when James sang from the Aretha canon, it was with the wisdom accrued from listening to her elders and then making something her own. You might initially hear Aretha in James’s renditions, but James, with her remarkably pliant and versatile voice (it’s truly a wondrous instrument) digs into the lyrics with a conviction so personal that you’re transfixed by the depth of emotion.
Backed by a seven-piece band with which she worked in perfect tandem, James would, as someone commented, "hold a note for thirty bars - and then play with it some more." And when she ripped into "Ain’t No Way" as her final number and raised the roof of Birdland, it was perfectly evident that there "ain’t no way" that anyone in that room was ever going to forget this night.