Diane Schuur's brassy style yields mixed results

Diane Schuur

Diane Schuur (Photo by David Redfern/Redferns / April 19, 2013)

It has been years since singer Diane Schuur played Chicago, but her performance Thursday night at the Jazz Showcase confirmed earlier impressions: Schuur has plenty of voice and sometimes uses it effectively.

At her best, Schuur can give a vocal line tremendous heft and presence. But all that sound, relentlessly delivered, can become wearying, repetitive and a little dull.

Schuur, in other words, doesn't do subtle. She prefers big and brassy, boldfacing every phrase, often holding long notes as long as her breath will allow. Or longer.

In a small room such as the Showcase, this can be more than a little overbearing. But it also can be effective, on occasion.

Schuur turned in her best work of her first set in the standard "I Remember You," a poignantly nostalgic tune too few singers revive today. She made a strong case for the piece, finding just the right easy swing tempo, evoking an earlier era in American songwriting without dipping into glib sentimentality. The straightforward, no-nonsense approach worked quite well here, while Schuur's duets with Chicago saxophonist Pat Mallinger bristled with the spirit of invention. Certainly Mallinger's ornate, bebop phrases added considerable interest to the music-making.

But most of the rest of the set illuminated both the strengths and shortcomings of Schuur's work.

She opened with Irving Berlin's "Change Partners," famously recorded by Frank Sinatra but delivered here with little of the master's nuance and subtext. Moreover, Schuur's intense vibrato veered perilously close to a wobble, making for a nearly constant distraction.

Schuur showed a great deal of heart in the Gershwins' "The Man I Love," but she overplayed her hand, mistaking bombast for drama. And the irritating, high-register, high-volume squeals and howls she produced toward the finale of Duke Ellington's "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)" were less enthralling than she might have imagined.

Throughout, Schuur accompanied herself deftly on piano. Yet both her pianism and her vocals were consistently overshadowed whenever Mallinger picked up his alto or tenor saxophone. Here was profound jazz musicianship, Mallinger's statements tirelessly creative, melodically complex, harmonically rich and tonally plush.

Drummer George Fludas swung this band hard, and bassist Jake Vinsel offered a luxuriantly rounded sound that took a bit of the edge off of Schuur's exhortations.

In the end, Schuur reminded us that first-rate jazz singing requires a range of color, tone, texture and interpretation. A huge, boomy voice alone just isn't enough.

hreich@tribune.com | Twitter @howardreich

Diane Schuur
When
: 8 and 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 4, 8 and 10 p.m. Sunday
Where: Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth Ct.
Admission: $35-$50; 312-360-0234 or jazzshowcase.com

CHICAGO

More