Nancy King enhances the tunes at the PDX Jazz Festival

The great jazz singer at 73 is brilliant as ever at the Camellia Lounge


There can’t be any longtime jazz lovers in Portland who haven’t heard the wonder that is Nancy King. But newcomers should keep their eyes peeled for this diva’s next gig; after all, the divine Miz King will turn 74 this year.

Not that Nancy King shows any signs of slowing down. Although she walks with a couple of canes, her voice is as fresh and agile as ever, and judging from her Portland Jazz Festival date at the Camellia Lounge on February 22, her formidable musical chops are in fine fettle. And that’s very fine fettle indeed.

Nancy King and Steve Christofferson at Touché

Nancy King and Steve Christofferson at Touché

The jazz singer who is the legitimate heiress of jazz goddesses Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald charmed a cozy crowd with her trademark blend of songbook classics, bebop saxophone riffs, and reworked pop tunes: her version of Elvis’s “Heartbreak Hotel” as a soulful blues, with a passage from Thelonious Monk’s “Misterioso” at the beginning and end, gives new life to that rock ‘n’ roll oldie.

In fact Nancy King expands and enhances every tune she touches. Her version of Rodgers & Hart’s 1926 oldie “Mountain Greenery,” which she recorded years ago with bassist Glen Moore (and no other accompaniment) on her album Impending Bloom, improves the original’s cornball lyrics — “Beans could get no keener reception in a beanery” — with magnificent scatting.

King similarly transformed the Sammy Cahn/McCoy Tyner ballad “You Taught My Heart to Sing,” improving on Dianne Reeves’s hit single of yesteryear, and she made Rod McKuen’s treacly “I Think of You” into a moving love song. With pianist Steve Christofferson’s sturdy backing, Sonny Rollins’s “St. Thomas Way” was a rocking Caribbean dance.

Another Sammy Cahn tune, “Day by Day,” led to her reminiscing about hearing Nancy Wilson with Cannonball Adderley in New York back in the day. Then it was on to a song made famous by her idol, Ella Fitzgerald, called “He’s a Carioca,” by Antonio Carlos Jobim. But King had saved the best for last.

In Cole Porter’s 1943 song “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To,” she leapt fearlessly into an extended a cappella cadenza based on a Sonny Rollins tenor sax riff, and then she closed her set with a version of Billie Holiday and Mal Waldron’s “All Alone,” in which her perfect tuning — she started the song a cappella — would have been revelation in most other singers, but seemed perfectly natural — normal, really — from her. The capacity audience, which included singer-pianist Bob Dorough, gave her a standing ovation, not something you see everyday in jazz clubs, even in Portland.

So, you young jazz Turks and Portland newcomers, get yourself to that next Nancy King date. The woman is one of America’s home-grown treasures, and there won’t be another like her.


Nancy King will play a “Supper Jazz” show 7-10 pm Friday, March 7, at the Bijou Cafe, 132 SW Third Ave., Portland. Reservations are recommended: (503) 222-3187.

Watch for more Terry Ross reviews from the just-concluded Portland Jazz Festival.

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