In recital Friday night singing a program of jazz standards and show tunes drawn largely from her recordings Roots and The Songbooks, Jessye Norman electrified Davies Hall with her artistry and emotional depth. The 67-year-old opera legend, who sang in a voice that explored a middle ground between opera and jazz, offered a lesson in restraint and precision as she crafted poignant character sketches with each song.
Norman's program was strong on blues and torch songs like "Lonely Town," "I've Got It Bad and That Ain't Good" and "My Man's Gone Now," to which she brought great delicacy and depth of feeling. For those of us more familiar with jauntier versions of Gershwin's "But Not for Me," with its playful rhymes, Norman's slow, wrenching rendition was a revelation.
Norman didn't shy away from chestnuts: "You'll Never Walk Alone," "Climb Every Mountain," "Summertime." But her subtle interpretations brought the audience to its feet even on such well-worn standards -- and, really, who are we to say no if Jessye Norman wants to lead us in "Amazing Grace"?
Blurry iPhone photo of Jessye Norman at Davies Hall Friday night accepting the audience's adulation.
At 67, Norman's voice is not what it was. But that frailty, in a great artist, can add an extra measure of charisma, the audience holding its breath, leaning in as the singer, balancing delicately within the limits of her instrument, threads her way along a tightrope of melody.
There were a few missteps. Norman sang a number of songs without amplification, making them sometimes difficult to follow. Even on numbers where she used a mic, Norman sometimes pulled it away from her lips abruptly and a little distractingly, as if to show that she could still fill a hall with sound when she wanted to.
Still, it was a very special evening -- and a homecoming of sorts for this reviewer, recently returned to the Bay Area after many years on the East Coast. Watching the chic SF crowd dancing to a jazz combo in the lobby before the show, or snapping its fingers expertly on the 2- and 4-beats and singing/swinging the "doo-wats" in "It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing" until the lights came up on that, Norman's final number, I felt I was where I was meant to be. "These are my people," I texted a friend, as the crowd filtered out into the night. "I'm back."
Joe Matazzoni is KQED's new Arts Managing Editor.