Review: Kat Edmonson at Middle C Jazz Club – Charlotte, NC
By Perry Tannenbaum
Kat Edmonson tended to look on the bright side of things when I interviewed her a few weeks ago. Confined to her home for long stretches when the pandemic hit, halfway through a 40-city tour promoting her 2019 Dreamers Do album, she eventually cranked out 66 podcasts, learning how to improvise to canned soundtracks while singing to a cellphone camera. She’s learned as an artist “to love my limitations” and perform at her best in spite of them.
No, her last two albums have been the Dreamers Do concept album, largely of Disney songs, and Holiday Swingin’, subtitled “A Kat Edmonson Christmas, Vol. 1.” So you wouldn’t expect Edmonson’s patter, when she appeared here in Charlotte at the Middle C Jazz Club, to address any of the wars troubling our world – cultural, political, or military. But I didn’t expect her to begin her latenight set with a song as woeful as “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most,” either, the song that concluded her debut album of 2009, Take to the Sky, in a cappella style.
She did, accompanied only by her pianist Roy Dunlap on this gig, and it seemed subtly appropriate for this troubled spring. While COVID is temporarily kicked to the curb, there are more than a couple of reasons not to feel cheery and upbeat as the seasons flip. And for a late show, sparse accompaniment and a reflective, rueful mood seemed perfect for the occasion. A surprisingly large percentage of the hundreds of “Spring Can Really Hang You Up” recordings have been made with sparse backing, including my favorite by Carmen McRae, criminally out-of-print for well over 35 years.
I became familiar with the song on Carmen’s 1964 Bittersweet recording, never suspecting that part of its immediate allure could be traced to its inspiration, the opening line of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land – “April is the cruellest month” – so revered in my high school and college days. Kat gets points for singing the verse, like Carmen and Ella, and for managing a fresh and pertinent variation on Tommy Wolf’s melody each time the title repeats.
Live at Middle C, Edmonson stretched her recorded arrangement by giving Dunlap a half-chorus interlude midway, but like most interpreters, she didn’t sing the complete song, leaving out three or four of Frances Landesman’s quatrains and discreetly transposing one or two lines. Less of a deep dive into bitterness that way, with Edmonson adding And the Eliot tie-in with her anecdotal epilogue.
Abbreviating the bitterness also made it easier to transition – and flip back a season – to Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn’s “Let It Snow!” from her recent Holiday album. Kat lightened the mood here with a conventional, upbeat arrangement, Dunlap providing the intro and another intermediate half chorus, and the vocalist was obviously in no rush to resume promoting Dreamers Do after more than two years away from touring.
Instead, we seemed to be getting an impromptu concept concert. Once again, Edmonson went way, way back in her discography for “Summertime,” the opening track on her 2008 debut album, Take It to the Sky – yet another seasonal choice. The slimmed-down arrangement began with pretty much the same brooding piano vamp we hear on the studio recording, with Kat sounding markedly less like Billie Holiday in her live version. Freed from merely lurking in the background, Dunlap was able to bring more gravitas to his solo interlude, ably filling in where trombonist Ron Westray played trombone on the CD. Yet after taking her second vocal from the bridge, Edmonson veered into vocalese as she did in the studio, and the duo’s ending was noticeably less funereal.
Dropping the season concept, Kat still kept her distance from Dreamers Do, but leaping past the two albums that followed her debut, edged us much closer to starlit Disney. “How’s About It Baby” was a surprisingly lighthearted choice from the Old Fashioned Gal release of 2018, retaining much of its tropical island flavor in the singer’s lyric, but Dunlap on piano went fairly wild in near-stride style, replacing the charming swaying-palm charm of the recording’s ukulele with the honkytonk sound of the jazz age.
If this led Kat fanatics to conclude that selections from Dreamers Do were now inevitable, our star made a U-turn, dipping into Take It to the Sky one last time for “Just Like Heaven.” Edmonson’s opening was as discursive as a verse, the bridge seemed to drop us dreamily off-road, and Dunlap’s solo willfully kept us in Dreamland.
Yes, now came the magical moment for Disney. A couple of songs from Dreamers Do – “A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes” and “The Second Star to the Right” – made for a worthwhile stay but not a protracted sojourn. Delightfully enough, Edmonson took the tempo up a bit in “A Dream,” giving it a swinging jazzy edge – and giving Dunlap the opportunity to playfully solo in an Errol Garner vein. Even without a rhythm section behind him, Dunlap managed to sound even more rhapsodic here on “Second Star” than he did in the studio on his solo, cresting grandly just as Kat reprised the melody.
Doubling back to Old Fashioned Gal, Edmonson sang two more of her originals, “If” and “Canoe,” in the same order that they appear on that album. Most transformed in her live performance was “If,” a tune inspired by the sound of the Ink Spots, now stripped of the backup vocals on the album – and the old-fashioned flavor of a crooning vocalist breaking through a harmonic haze. Surprisingly enough, the serene reverie of “Canoe” was mischievously disrupted by Dunlap’s stride piano solo, which nearly caught fire before Kat reclaimed control. A little more rowdy and we may have imagined something passionate happening on that little boat!
Maybe half of the remaining songs seemed to be planned as Edmonson opened the show to requests. Folks in the audience weren’t necessarily Kat aficionados or, as devotees of her podcasts dubbed themselves, Dreamers. So, unexpectedly, we heard her sing “My Funny Valentine” and, since she felt insecure with the lyrics of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Skylark,” aimed to please with “Stardust,” including the verse. Lerner & Loewe’s “On the Street Where You Live” was a sunny excavation from the ‘50s that Kat has never recorded, but Dunlap absolutely reveled in it with a raggy solo that reminded me of Dave Hanna.
Three of Edmonson’s most delicious originals still remained, all from her Way Down Low album of 2012 – and all included in the live set I heard Kat sing at the Savannah Music Festival in 2019. Lowest of these by far was “Nobody Knows That,” with beautifully impressionistic work from Dunlap, which drew a laugh from the audience when the singer disclosed that she wrote the song after a breakup. Maybe I wasn’t the only audience member who found that to be an epic understatement in view of the song’s sweetly forlorn sadness. “Champagne,” looking back on the end of a far briefer and more casual relationship, was that much lighter and more sparkly.
A couple of the requests we could hear called at our table, “What a Wonderful World” and “Lucky,” were coyly deferred as Kat shuttled between honoring requests and singing the songs she had planned on for the latter half of her set. Maybe the hesitation on “What a Wonderful World” stemmed from how differently it would emerge live without the celesta and strings that surrounded her in the studio, where it served as the morning awakening at the end of her Dreamers Do scenario.
But the deaf ear she seemed to turn to “Lucky” can likely be attributed to the fact that this audience favorite had been preordained as the closing song before Kat Edmonson first strode onto the Middle C bandstand nearly 90 minutes earlier. Edmonson has repeatedly said that songs come to her wrapped up in other singers’ voices, like The Ink Spots, Nancy Wilson, or Sinatra. For me, “Lucky” is in that special category of really special songs – along with “Rainy Day Woman,” “You Said Enough,” and “What Else Can I Do?” – that are hard to imagine being sung by anyone else but Edmonson.