What a delight to see an artist mature before one’s very eyes. I confess to a certain bias, having been a fan of Christina Watson since the time over 10 years ago when she arrived in Nashville and began taking classes at the Jazz Workshop.
Over a period of several years she took nearly every vocal class offered, and developed from a fantastic soul singer with decent jazz chops to a fantastic soul and jazz singer. Before long she was performing around town with her own band and had recorded a CD.
Fast forward a few years and two more CDs with producer Green Daniel* and her distinctive style was evolving. Having learned the standard jazz repertoire inside and out, with each recording she expanded her palette more and more to include fresher sounds. A Blue . . . has a slightly noir feel, and her latest CD, Passages, includes some very hip jazz arrangements of more contemporary (i.e., 1970’s) pop standards.
Listening to her CD’s, one is struck by the subtlety and complexity of the arrangements and the tremendous emotional range required to “sell” these songs. The listener immediately realizes how much work must have gone into the the studio production.
All that said, pulling this sort of thing off in a live performance is no small feat. For her recent appearance for an extended set in the City Winery’s Sunday Jazz Series, she could easily have fallen back on a set of jazz standards (and given her prodigious vocal chops, that would have been sufficient). Not content to rest on her laurels, though, she gave a virtuouso performance that wowed audience and bandmates alike.
Sunday night’s set did indeed involve some jazz standards, but with a twist. Cole Porter’s “So In Love” was done with a languuid, moody feel that had bassist Joe Davidian (yes, you heard me — virtuoso pianist Joe Davidian anchored the evening’s rhythm section as a bassist!) shouting “Yeah Christina!” “Black Coffee,” normally done as a slow blues, was given a snappy, uptempo feel.” Some of the evening’s most impressive moments, however, came from her contemporary arrangements, including Stevie Wonder’s “Until You Come Back to Me” and the night’s tour de force, Stephen Sondheim’s “The Ladies Who Lunch.”
Such challenging material demands considerable skill from the rhythm section, and the evening’s sidemen were up to the task and then some. Pianist Matt Endahl sparkled throughout, delivering impeccable comping and inventive solos. Listening to Joe Davidian, one would not guess that bass isn’t his primary instrument. And Josh Hunt was, well, Josh Hunt. Which is to say, delivering crisp grooves and solos on time and in the pocket.
The overall impression was of a mature artist at the top of her game, completely in tune with her material and with the audience. As I said, a joy, and judging by the enthusiastic response of Sunday’s audience, they felt the same way!
The evening was the third in the (mostly monthly) series of Sunday night performances with help from the Nashville Jazz Workshop (booking and promotion) and singer-songwriter-jazz vocalist Rebecca Sayre (who brings it all together). Nashville audiences should count themselves fortunate to have this new venue and series.
* A Flower Truly Blue, 2008 and Passages, 2014
Larry Seeman is Development Director at the Nashville Jazz Workshop and has been an enthusiastic fan of Christina Watson since her student days at the Workshop.