The crypt at St. Martin-in-the-Fields kicked off its “Jazz at the Crypt” series on Wednesday with Zena James and her band. It was also the pre-release show for Zena’s new album “Captivated,” which comes out later this year.
Zena is a great lover of jazz, R&B and soul and her voice reflects the wide range of moods of the music. She loves it, imitates it and enjoys the subtleties of it. She can have playful phrasing, as in the opening number “Why Don’t You Do Right” and “Gypsy In My Soul”, she can be calm (“Small Day Tomorrow”) and she can be seductive (“You Make Me Wanna”). Then there are moments where Zena will just tilt her head back and and immerse herself in the music, like she did during “You Move Me”, one of two songs of her own that she sang during the show.
Accompanying her was the band that played on the album, apart from pianist Mike Guy who took the place of her usual pianist Rob Taggart. Mike’s lines were focused and well-crafted especially on “That Old Black Magic” and “Human Nature.”
Bassist Patrick Bettison kept the band grounded with groovy riffs (“My Love Is” in particular). Simon Allen as the accompanying sax player played strongly, though I found his playing at times over-aggressive. Drummer Mike Bradley provided great textured drumming, especially on the hi-hat. His solos were particularly exciting.
I’m not sure if it was the sound system or the crypt’s stone walls and floor, but Zena’s full vocal range didn’t come through. It does on the album, where she can sound intimate and warm. For example, when she reached for high notes, they came soaring through, but whispering low notes didn’t come through on the speakers to where I was sitting very well. It’s wonderful on her albums and it would perhaps be more apparent in a venue that isn’t made of stone.
Robert O’Connor is a freelance journalist and writer from St. Paul, Minnesota. His work has appeared in the Twin Cities Daily Planet, Hot Press Magazine, NewCity Chicago and KFAI.