A Brilliant Stew
Jazz singer Jenna Mammina succeeds with old classics and writes her own striking material.
Thursday, August 4, 2005
Before Jenna Mammina started writing her own songs, she was turning the work of other artist’s into her personal property.
Steeped in jazz, the self-invented song stylist has built a dedicated following in the Bay Area through her daring, seat-of-the-pants performances. Combining the emotional presence of a singer/songwriter with the rhythmic finesse of a tap dancer, Mammina draws from an audaciously capacious repertoire in which acoustic interpretations of songs by Warren Zevon, Elvis Costello, Steely Dan and Led Zeppelin sidle up to the music of Fats Waller, Billy Strayhorn and Abbey Lincoln.
It was Lincoln who helped set Mammina on her singular path. A jazz star of the early 1960s, Lincoln blossomed into a tart, plainspoken songwriter late in her career, and she has offered Mammina regular encouragement in developing material that fits her own sensibility. Another supportive role model is Cassandra Wilson, whose fascinating journey from jazz avant gardist to glamorous, down-home folkster has produced some chill-inducing music. While Mammina sounds nothing like either woman—her light, transparent, back-of-the-throat delivery evokes an intrepid ingenue more than a world-weary chanteuse—like both she’s expanding the jazz canon to meet her emotional needs as a performer.
“I feel like I’ve got some pretty good people on my side to get inspiration from,” says Mammina, who performs at Monterey Live on Monday with seven-string guitar ace Robin Lewis. “I love Glen Campbell and Jimmy Webb, and at the same time I was hanging out with Jon Hendricks last month at the Art Tatum Jazz Festival. I love Annie Lennox, I think she’s super powerful. But I also have this playful side of me, writing songs on stage by taking five words from the audience and improvising a new tune.”
Lewis, a masterful accompanist who works with numerous singers, describes Mammina as an exceptionally intuitive musician.
“Some vocalists sing the lyrics but it doesn’t necessarily tell a story,” Lewis says. “Jenna has internalized her material and she’s got a definite emotional connection with it. She continuously surprises me. If she forgets the words to a song, she’ll make something up without batting an eyelash. She’s very present when she’s singing. That keeps me on my toes, and makes for a really immediate experience.”
Mammina has worked in a wide variety of contexts.
When it came time to release her own musical statement in 1999, she delivered a remarkably mature debut with Under the Influence, an eclectic album that ranges from a seriously sexy version of Elvis Costello’s “Watching the Detectives” to a wistful interpretation of Bernstein, Comden and Green’s “Some Other Time.”
Her follow up, 2002’s Meant To Be To Be, features a similarly disparate program, with tunes by U2, Tom Waits, Duke Ellington and Harry Warren. Mammina displays a gift for turning any song that enters her field of gravity into a potent vehicle for self-expression.
“People come up to me and say, ‘I love that Detective song that you wrote,” Mammina says with a laugh.
JENNA MAMMINA PLAYS AT 8PM ON MONDAY, AUGUST 8, AT MONTEREY LIVE, 414 ALVARADO ST., MONTEREY. $12. 646-1415.