Chicago listeners already know that Tammy McCann possesses one of the most voluptuously beautiful voices in jazz, but they've never heard her quite the way she sounded Thursday night at the Jazz Showcase.
For the first time McCann was sharing the stage with Laurence Hobgood, an exceptional pianist-arranger whose contributions have significantly changed the context for McCann's art.
Until now, McCann's luxuriant tone, traditional repertoire and glamorous stage persona have evoked an earlier, more romantic era in jazz history: the golden age when Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan, Nancy Wilson and comparably charismatic divas ruled the world. Practically everything McCann has sung has suggested a nostalgic longing for an epoch widely admired but inarguably gone. Few contemporary female jazz singers have recalled that period more poetically than McCann, her reverence for her musical forebears enhanced by the enormous scale of her instrument and the range of vocal colors she could produce.
In a single stroke, pianist Hobgood has enabled McCann to recalibrate all that, significantly repositioning her music. For though the glories of her voice remain wholly intact, the accompaniments Hobgood and fellow instrumentalists provided were unmistakably modern, fresh and, at times, a bit edgy. Suddenly a singer who seemed to be an upholder of traditions emerged as an artist gently recasting those traditions.
Some in the large audience might have been a bit disconcerted by the lean, sharp musical settings that Hobgood provided. But for at least one listener McCann sounded newly inspired and planted firmly and persuasively in the 21st century.
The shift was apparent from the outset, McCann, Hobgood and colleagues casting new light on a well-worn standard, "Old Devil Moon." Hobgood's insistent counter-motif – which opened the piece and recurred throughout it – provided harmonic tension and rhythmic contrast to McCann's long, silken lines. No matter how lush a sound McCann produced,
Hobgood's staccato accompaniment challenged her. So what once would have unfolded as warmly romantic singing now was cast against a formidable, hard-driving piano part. In the similarly historic "Caravan," McCann picked up on Hobgood's spirit of adventure, riffing freely on the repeated-note theme that was at the center of the pianist's work. Her solo here was quite inventive, Hobgood re-entering the fray with atmospheric tone-painting.
So it went throughout this first set, McCann liberating herself further from conventional, comfortable interpretations. She dared to sing certain passages of "Autumn Leaves" backed only by Samuel Jewell's drums; she let the final phrases of Billy Strayhorn's "Day Dream" drift softly into the ether; she stretched phrases to the breaking point in "I'll Remember April."
The tour de force came in the form of a duet with Hobgood on "Easy Living," a tune widely associated with another Chicago singer, albeit from an earlier era: Johnny Hartman.
McCann created her own world of sound here, her whispered notes carrying surprising tonal weight, her melodic lines taking twists and turns no one could have anticipated.
Hobgood did a great deal to make all of this possible, his work amounting to a form of narrative storytelling. Even if McCann hadn't sung a note, one would have been engaged by Hobgood's musical commentary.
Not that the McCann-Hobgood partnership can be considered a finished product. Balances between the vocalist and the band (which also featured bassist John Sutton and vibist Justin Thomas) sometimes were off, the instrumentalists at times stepping on McCann's notes.
More fundamentally, these fine musicians cannot be considered a working band at this point – they don't fully cohere. Yet Hobgood's art added immeasurably to McCann's, suggesting this could be the start of an important partnership.
They go into the recording studio next month. Already they have a great deal to say.