Live Jazz: Rondi Charleston at Catalina Bar & Grill

By Michael Katz

Hearing a hitherto unknown vocalist for the first time in live performance is a little like a blind date. Hopes are high, introductions can be awkward. Rondi Charleston dropped onto the LA jazz scene for a Thursday night date at Catalina, celebrating her new CD, Who Knows Where The Time Goes. Backed by a stellar quartet that featured pianist Lynne Arriale and guitarist Dave Stryker, she began with a couple of blithe runs through Jobim’s “Wave” and the Loesser/Lane standard “I Hear Music,” familiarizing herself with the room’s sometimes challenging acoustics before settling in with more intimate material.

Charleston has an intriguing background, having grown up in Chicago’s Hyde Park (University of Chicago) the daughter of an English professor (her father) and singer /voice teacher (her mother). She attended Julliard at 16 and later earned a Masters in journalism at NYU before working as a reporter for ABC News in New York, moonlighting as a vocalist and then embracing music full time.

As Charleston shifted gears from the opening standards to a lovely version of Sandy Denny’s “Who Knows Where The Time Goes,” you got the sense that growing up as many of us did with the music of Judy Collins, Joni Mitchell and Stevie Wonder, their music became her own standards. “Who Knows Where The Time Goes” was a seamless crossover from folk to jazz; her cover of Wonder’s “Overjoyed” had a lilting, foot tapping quality, with Arriale providing a sprightly accompaniment. As the set progressed, Charleston better showcased her vocal chops by splintering off into duo and trio work, alternating between guitarist /musical director Stryker and pianist Arriale, backed up by the steady work of Ed Howard on bass and Anthony Pinciotti on drums.

Her songs with Arriale were evocative collaborations, Charleston penning the lyrics to Arriale’s tunes. They included “Land of Galilee,” inspired by her trip to the Holy Land, and “Her Spirit Lingers,” a tribute to her great grandmother, who emigrated from Norway to the Great Plains and eventually Oregon. Charleston has the ear of a good listener and the folksie patter of an engaging storyteller. “Telescope,” which she penned after a visit to the planetarium with her then-toddler daughter, made me think of Oscar Brown Jr’s lyrics to “Dat Dere.” And Arriale, who isn’t heard often enough here in Southern California, is a sensitive composer and soloist.

When Charleston moved across the stage to team with Stryker, she showed off her romantic side. With Stryker providing a Brazilian touch, she sang Milton Nascimento’s “Everything You Were Meant To Be (Todo Que Voce Podia Ser),” handling the Portuguese lyrics so gracefully that she probably could have dispensed with the English ones altogether. She also did a duet with Stryker on “This Nearly Was Mine,” adapting the male baritone song from South Pacific to her own softly measured tones, weaving the melody in with Stryker’s sweet chords.

Charleston has an adventurous, probing spirit. For Bobby McFerrin’s “Freedom is a Voice,” she had the lyrics translated into Zulu at Columbia University. Merging the results with the English chorus, her version reminds you that jazz can careen joyfully between its folk, blues and Afro-latin roots; there is rhythm at its core and optimism at its soul.

Her one bluesy excursion was Percy Mayfield’s “Please Send Me Someone to Love.” That’s a song I generally associate with the gutsy voice of its composer, or Dinah Washington or Lou Rawls, but she belted it out with verve, aided by some mean guitar licks from Stryker. By the end it was evident, as Mose Allison might put it, that middle class white folks need someone to love, too.

All and all it was an engaging LA debut, hopefully setting a precedent for a longer stay next time.

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