Stacey Kent skims through the great American songbook at the Oak Room.
As Stacey Kent opened her gig at the Algonquin Hotel's Oak Room with "They All Laughed," this pair of critics exchanged approving glances. Here was a voice with character and personality. Here, too, was a singer in the jazz idiom who invested the song's lyrics with a sense of immediacy. But the more we listened, the more things stayed the same; though the music styles of Kent's selections changed from samba to swing to sultry ballad, it soon became apparent that the singer's greatest influence is the Xerox corporation.
We say this with considerable disappointment because we like the distinctive nature of Kent's voice, her sense of being "in the moment" as a performer, and her natural presence. We were entranced when she sang "You Go to My Head" as a slow and haunting sensual lament. A quirky beauty who bears a resemblance to Sarah Jessica Parker, Kent has an inner light that brightened each of her numbers even as they eventually started to sound like one long song.
Take, for example, "They Can't Take That Away From Me," which Kent included in the middle of her act; after introducing the song as "wistful," she proceeded to smile in an inappropriately sunny way while singing it, as if she wasn't thinking about the lyrics or simply didn't care about conveying their meaning. Kent has a fabulous smile -- it's just that she uses it way too often. What we realized, as this amiable but forgettable show continued, was that Kent was singing these songs as if she had no emotional stake in them. Her version of "Say It Isn't So," for instance, was merely pretty rather than heartbreaking.
The act is built around some of the most beloved tunes in the great American songbook. If you want to hear Rodgers & Hammerstein, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, et al., Kent has 'em. To be sure, her phrasing is intelligent and she sings lyrics clearly, cleanly, and directly. In that sense, she's a delicate and sensible jazz singer.
Her four-piece band is led by her husband, sax player Jim Tomlinson, and the accompaniment matches Kent's understated style. It's a style that will appeal to many. Kent is back at the Oak Room through September 28, having made a notable debut in this venue last year. She's also just come out with her fifth CD, In Love Again. We hope to be in love again with Ms. Kent when she fulfills the promise we saw at the start of her act.