Music and Lyrics
Bobbe Norris and Larry Dunlap bring a long history to Carmel.
Thursday, June 7, 2007
Bobbe Norris knows exactly which songs fit her voice like a velvet glove.
Her latest album Out of Nowhere features 14 tunes that lean heavily toward torchy ballads. With her husky contralto, Norris interprets the songs with such sympathy and deft phrasing that the session never drags. She doesn’t scat or take many liberties with the melodies. Rather, Norris is a jazz influenced song stylist who knows that her chesty lower register is a perfect vehicle for rendering lyrics about romance. She performs on Saturday at the Jazz and Blues Company with her husband, the superlative accompanist Larry Dunlap, and bassist Dan Feiszli.
Norris isn’t averse to finger popping tempos. She can deliver a brisk version of “What A Little Moonlight Can Do” that swings with authority. But she is most at home on sensuously slow ballads, such as “Star Eyes,” “My Old Flame,” and “It’s You Or No One,” all of which receive ravishing treatment on the CD. With tasty, uncluttered arrangements by Dunlap, a veteran accompanist who has worked widely with jazz legends such as Gerry Mulligan, Art Farmer, Dame Cleo Laine, Joe Williams, Sheila Jordan and Mark Murphy, Norris is in the enviable position of having a world class in-house music director.
For Dunlap, the relationship with Norris was a further step along a musical path on which he was already traveling. Over the years he has worked in a wide variety of contexts, playing keyboards in the seminal Bay Area fusion band Listen, gigging with tenor titan Joe Henderson and recording extensively with Cape Verdean composer Amandio Cabral. But his specialty has long been accompanying singers, particularly Laine, who has relied upon him for years.
“A lot of musicians don’t like working with singers, but I do,” says Dunlap from the house he shares with Norris in Pacifica. “I’m not a great singer, but I sing some too and I’ve always liked songs. In fact, a lot of times I’ll work with a singer and they’ll be at a loss for a lyric and they’ll look at me, and I’ll know what it is. It happened with Cleo a couple of times. I enjoy painting a musical picture behind a singer.”
Dunlap and Norris share a love of well-crafted songs. From her earliest exposure to music growing up in Mill Valley surrounded by a close and highly musical family, Norris was highly conscious of the importance of interpreting a lyric. Both her parents played the piano and it was the rare family gathering that didn’t turn into a song fest. Norris remembers being particularly influenced by an uncle who sang like Frank Sinatra. A little later, Nat “King” Cole, Sinatra and Johnny Hartman became the singers to whom she listened closely for inspiration.
“I think I picked up a lot of their phrasing,” Norris says. “I couldn’t sing with the women because my voice was lower. In fact, I tried not to listen to female singers that much because I didn’t want to copy anybody. I sang at all the assemblies in high school. And in Marin, Dave Brubeck and Cal Tjader lived close by and would come by and play for us at our rallies.”
Her real jazz education, however, took place in afterhour San Francisco joints like Jimbo’s Bop City, where she absorbed music sitting in with local players and visiting jazz stars. She started working professionally at 17, and while her parents weren’t keen on her dating, they had no problem with her staying out all night to sing. A stint at the Purple Onion in North Beach, working opposite the Smothers Brothers and Phyllis Diller, put her on the entertainment map, and before long she heard the call of New York.
She eventually signed to Columbia, recruited by legendary talent scout and producer John Hammond, the man responsible for jump starting the careers of Billie Holiday, Count Basie, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. Given the choice between recording a jazz record in a one-album deal or trying to hit it big with a pop session, Norris went the pop route and made “The Beginning” in 1966, and on each subsequent recording she moved further and further away from jazz. It wasn’t until she returned to the Bay Area and met Dunlap that Norris got back to her musical roots.
Though they recorded a handful of fine albums together in the 80s, none are now in print. For people who haven’t had the chance to hear Norris perform, it might seem that this refreshingly mature jazz artist appeared, as the title track to her new album suggests, “Out of Nowhere.” But she has spent decades honing her approach, and since she found a partner in life and music, Norris has the complete package--a sensitive and supremely supportive accompanist to match her accomplished and deeply affecting singing.
BOBBE NORRIS AND LARRY DUNLAP perform 7:30pm Saturday, June 9, at The Jazz & Blues Company, the Eastwood Building, San Carlos and Fifth, Carmel. $40. 624-6432 or thejazzandbluescompany.com