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Straight Up With a Twist
Kitty Margolis has got the goods--a strong, blunt voice, perfect pitch, a fine sense of swing, and terrific scatting chops--but there are plenty of singers who've got the goods and don't know what to do with them.
Margolis knows. On Straight Up With a Twist, she takes so many vocal chances that at times you find yourself holding your breath and thinking "Oh my God, what does she think she's doing here?" Nine times out of 10, her inventiveness pays off, as she (usually) remembers to let melody work for her.
The disc opens with "Getting to Know You," the beautiful ballad from The King and I. The introduction finds Margolis making odd mouth noises in some sort of African rhythm, and it seems certain that she's going to ruin the song, but when she then sings the melody plainly--the drums barely echoing that African rhythm--the effect is enchanting. On "For All We Know," her delivery is slow and straightforward, cushioned by guest trumpeter Roy Hargrove, who keeps the mute in and plays gently. The song is gorgeous because it was written that way, and while some singers would want to see what they could do with it, Margolis sings it as if she wants to hear what it can do for her. That's smart singing.
Some of the other tracks represent bigger gambles. She takes Peggy Lee's "Fever" in 7/8 time and adds a gentle reggae beat, breaking up the throbbing rhythm usually associated with this classic. In Margolis' hand the tune is kinkier, but still sexy. And perhaps a bit too subdued--Kenny Brooks almost steals it with a tenor sax solo. She does something similar on "All or Nothing at All," trying to distort the melody a la John Coltrane; it seems a bit forced.
The biggest gamble of them all, however, comes on "The In Crowd," which features both Hargrove and the legendary baritone soul singer Charles Brown. The band frantically sets an electric Miles Davis-type groove beneath which Hargrove noodles hard bop lines, and when you hear Brown singing "If it's square, we ain't there," you know there's some kind of hipster joke going on. It's nice to hear three fine musicians pushing the envelope, but the experiment misses the mark. When Brown and Margolis laugh and exchange banter at the song's end, it's hard to tell if they're truly tickled or if the script called for laughter.
Perhaps this is quibbling. Margolis has chosen some terrific melodies ("We Kiss in a Shadow," "My Romance," and "Speak Low," to name a few more) and decorated them splendidly. She obviously has the tools--voice, passion and guts--and as long as she's willing to keep taking chances, I'll gladly listen.
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