IN PERFORMANCE

Roberta Gambarini eventually gets her groove

It took a while for singer Roberta Gambarini to find her footing – and reach her audience – Wednesday night at the Jazz Showcase, where she's in residence through Sunday.

But once she did, about a third of the way into her first set, she showed the deepening nature of her art and her growing appeal as soloist.

The problem with the start of the evening owed to Gambarini's misreading of the nature of her audience and the emotional temperature of the room. Had this been, say, a boisterous, standing-room-only crowd hungry to be entertained, the jazz-goddess posture of Gambarini's initial sequence might have been just the right thing.

But playing in front of a smallish group of hushed, pre-holiday listeners, Gambarini came on way too strong, as if she were playing a far grander occasion than she really was. Her extroverted manner, exuberant delivery and showy technical feats seemed designed for rather different circumstances. One could admire her self-assurance and vocal control in an a cappella opener – "Monk's Prayer" – while realizing that this unusual beginning didn't come off nearly as dramatically as she might have hoped.

Similarly, her uptempo, aggressive version of "Day In, Day Out" and high-flown scat passages in "On the Sunny Side of the Street" were too much, too soon. Even a singer of Gambarini's accomplishments risks overwhelming an audience with this degree of hyperactivity so early in a performance. Better to make emotional contact with listeners first, bedazzle them next.

It wasn't until Gambarini turned down the dial and eased into Astor Piazzolla's "Oblivion" that she genuinely began to communicate. Leaving the glitz and glamour behind, she brought a softly burning intensity to Piazzolla's vocal lines, imploring listeners without accosting them. Gambarini's depth of feeling here was unmistakable, her subtlety of phrase and tone a welcome change of pace.

From this point forth, Gambarini tried to persuade her audience rather than conquer it, and both she and her listeners benefited.

Everyone identifies "This Masquerade" with George Benson's hit recording, but Gambarini's version held its own. Her medium-slow tempo underscored the harmonic and rhythmic tension of the piece, while her blues phrasings personalized it. Pianist George Cables' accompaniment gave the reading additional emotional weight, proving that he and Gambarini – plus bassist John Webber and Chicago drummer George Fludas – had figured out how to shake the dust off of the song.

The muted colors and aura of stillness Gambarini achieved in music from the film "Cinema Paradiso" were more difficult to achieve than casual listeners might have realized. And the elegance of phrase and line she brought to Benny Carter's "When Lights Are Low" indicated a profound understanding of how the piece is put together.

Though Gambarini insisted on doing her impersonation of a trumpet in Bruno Martino's "Summer" – reprising a novelty stunt she sometimes indulges in – at least she kept the gimmick mercifully short this time around. But she made more meaningful music with pastel tones elsewhere in the tune and with the barely perceptible pianissimos that ended it.

All of which set the stage for the finale, a fast-flying, fiercely scatted version of "Lover Come Back to Me." By this point in the evening, Gambarini had built toward a climax, her pyrotechnics much more effective here than in the somewhat overwrought beginning of her set.

Clearly, Gambarini knows how to generate heat – she just needs to choose her moments a little more carefully.

hreich@tribune.com

Twitter @howardreich

Roberta Gambarini

When: 8 and 10 p.m. Thursday through Saturday; 4, 8 and 10 p.m. Sunday

Where: Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth Ct.

Admission: $25-$30; 312-360-0234 or jazzshowcase.com

CHICAGO

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