Relaxin' With Karen Oberlin

Singer Karen Oberlin in duo with guitarist Sean Harkness at Manhattan's Jazz at the Kitano/ photo: Takako Harkness

Too many singers try too hard these days. At least, that’s how it seems.
Some labor to appear as though not trying or caring at all, approximating the ubiquitous small-voiced detachment of indie pop. Others make their grandiose efforts abundantly clear in case there is a celebrity panel nearby to judge them into stardom (as, often, there is).
All of which makes it that much more relaxing and rewarding to spend time with a singer who is fine with just being natural, who needs nothing more. If she’s working hard, well, that’s between her and, say, her guitarist.
Such was the case during Karen Oberlin’s late set on Saturday at Manhattan’s Jazz at the Kitano club, within the Kitano Hotel, where Oberlin and guitarist Sean Harkness celebrated the release of a duo CD, “A Wish” (Miranda Music).
In New York City, if you’re white and you sing songs without swinging hard, rocking out or funking things up, if you draw upon a wide range of repertoire with equivalent attention to lyrics, history and musicianship, all of that will likely land you in the “cabaret” category. That’s the milieu in which Oberlin has achieved both acclaim and awards. She should be more widely heard on stages that look beyond that scene—perhaps Lincoln Center’s “American Songbook” series—as well as at jazz clubs. (I’m told she’ll be at Manhattan’s Birdland jazz club in April to reprise the music on a previous Miranda Music CD, “Secret Love; The Music of Doris Day,” with a septet.)
At the Kitano on Saturday, Oberlin revealed the power she can summon and project just once, fleetingly, near the end of Joni Mitchell’s “Love,” which, she later told me, she hears as “an exulation.” Mostly, she negotiated the lovely space between a knowing mid-and lower range and a glowing upper one. Part of Oberlin’s appeal is the confidence and purity of voice that invites restraint. She held notes exclusively where to do so made sense and released her lovely vibrato in only carefully measured doses, when it served the narrative and musical logic of a given song. These songs came from many eras, loosely connected by themes of “love and life”—“What else is there to sing about?” she asked at one point—and were tethered to arrangements voiced by Harkness’s guitar, through playing that never receded into mere accompaniment.
In Harkness, Oberlin has both a playful and challenging foil. He set up grooves only to disturb them with wily single-note runs, yet never left Oberlin floating without rhythmic anchor. He drew on stylistic legacies as diverse as Jim Hall, Bucky Pizzarelli, and João Gilberto, without sounding derivative. Oberlin, too, never dipped into anything like mimicry, not even on the ballad “My One and Only Love,” for which Johnny Hartman’s classic rendition in collaboration with John Coltrane is hard to evade.
Oberlin isn’t much interested in overtly complicated musical interpretation. She focuses instead on the implied complications of a song’s lyrics and structure; she leaned in and out of pitches, for instance, on the rarely heard Billy Strayhorn composition “No One Knows” to convey both complex shades of meaning and tricky chord progressions. The most tender and affecting moments of the set arrived via two songs composed by pianist Fred Hersch. Oberlin made a good case for “A Wish,” with lyrics by Norma Winstone, as the quietist and least saccharine of Valentine’s Day standards. “Good Things Happen Slowly,” which Hersch wrote in 2009 after recovering from a life-threatening three-month coma, features lyrics by David Hajdu, who is Oberlin’s husband, and whose celebrated work as a writer includes the most deeply researched account of Hersch’s life and music I’ve read. Hajdu’s lyrics fleshed out ideas concerning life’s unpredictable vicissitudes. Yet the song relied most powerfully on a couplet drawn from what Hersch’s doctor had told his partner, Scott Morgan, while the pianist was lost in motionless limbo: Good things happen slowly/ bad things happen fast.
Oberlin made those lines ever more meaningful and musical because they sounded effortless.
Photo: Takako Harkness

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