Many of us have never had the opportunity to experience in person the vulnerable sense of heartbreak in Billie Holiday's voice. But we continue to return to her. Why? Because we live in a world where our workaday certainties include death, taxes and mediocre jazz vocalists. Instead of resigning yourself to waifish tootsies wallowing in the Karo syrup of my-funny-valentine-isms, allow me to let you in on a little secret: The greatest living jazz singer is your neighbor. How's about it, can I borrow a cup of sugar, Nancy King?
King's greatness is no secret to her dedicated fans, who include jazz and pop greats like Diana Krall, Deborah Harry, Elvis Costello, Ray Brown and Karrin Allyson, to name a handful. They know that the 66-year-old King, like Holiday, is a singer who consistently breaks the bank, turns the tables and reaffirms one's belief in the sublime. With a fantastic new record (Live at Jazz Standard with Fred Hersch, on MAX Jazz), her nearly 25-year-old musical partnership with pianist Steve Christofferson reaching full bloom, and volleys of praise finding their way back to Oregon, Nancy King should feel like a queen.
Originally from Springfield, Ore., King has been active in jazz for four decades. She began in vibrant early-1960s San Francisco, where she met her late husband, Sonny King. She headed back to Oregon during the 1970s to perform with local up-and-comers like Ralph Towner, Glen Moore, David Friesen and Tom Grant. She's released a number of divinely musical sides with both Moore and Christofferson, appeared at an array of festivals, and collaborated with the likes of Brown, Allyson, Costello and Harry, but has somehow criminally escaped wider recognition.
While vocalists can often be the bane of a musician's existence, I don't know a jazz player alive who wouldn't drop everything to work with King. It could be her ease with blistering bop-complexity or the subdued passion unfolding with Georgia O'Keeffe-like sensuality as she shapes a ballad. No matter, there's a reflective warmth and openness and an elastic, rhythmic virtuosity in King that re-ignites the flickering candlelight of the American Popular Songbook like nobody's business. Without a hint of pretense, her delivery and emotional gravity are every bit as resplendent as the best of Sarah Vaughan or Betty Carter. Seattle Times critic Paul de Barros recently commented, "If there's a hipper bebop singer than Nancy King, I'd like to know where she lives. King puts listeners under a spell they never quite forget."
Luckily, the world's beginning to notice, and the cult of King is widening its circle. Case in point: the caravan of exceptional New York-based greats (including pianist Benny Green, underrated trumpeter Ingrid Jensen and bassist Essiet Essiet) who jumped at the chance to work with King for her upcoming evening at the Aladdin Theater. For those who've experienced the utter beauty, panache and spark of her vocal presence, you'll understand why, to quote lyricist Paul Madeira, "In this world of overrated pleasures, of underrated treasures," Nancy King, "I'm glad there is you."
Nancy King performs with Benny Green & Friends Friday, July 14, at the Aladdin Theater. 8 pm. $20 advance, $25 at the door. All ages.