Nancy Harms Celebrates Duke Ellington
“A royal-blue night sky and twinkling stars: the perfect moment.” With those words, the complicated jazz singer Nancy Harms introduced her rendition of “Prelude to a Kiss” on Sunday evening at the Metropolitan Room, where she sang a program of Duke Ellington-related songs titled “Ellington at Night.”
Ms. Harms, who grew up in Minnesota and relocated to New York five years ago, is only tangentially related to the jazz vocal tradition of Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Billie Holiday. She has a small, vibratoless voice that sounds almost childlike until she suddenly lets her power loose on key phrases that display a reserve of swinging authority and a defiant attitude.
Her versions of “Mood Indigo,” “Prelude to a Kiss,” “Lush Life” and “Lost in Meditation” were among the slowest I’ve heard. Instead of coming to clearly defined endings, they trailed off and faded out, the final syllables half-mumbled. Jeremy Siskind’s loose-jointed arrangements for her band — Chris Ziemba on piano, Danton Boller on bass and Willie Jones III — helped sustain the impression that, to some degree, her renditions were stream-of-consciousness reflections by a singer reining in emotions until they exploded from within. During “Lush Life,” the phrase “smile in spite of it” was delivered with a cutting sarcasm that interrupted a mood of glum, muted self-reflection.
“This Strange Feeling,” with lyrics by Billy Strayhorn that describe an ominous, psychedelic disorientation, rode on a merry-go-round piano motif that enhanced its eerie science-fiction atmosphere.
Ms. Harms’s show wasn’t all impressionistic dreaminess. A tough, demanding swinger emerged in up-tempo numbers like “Long, Strong, and Consecutive” and “Just Squeeze Me,” which she delivered as assertive instructional songs on sexual etiquette. Behind her girlish mannerisms, Ms. Harms revealed the determination of a strong, independent woman who knows what she wants and refuses to worship at the altars of her jazz forerunners. The final impression left by Ms. Harms was of a complicated enigmatic woman of mystery forging her own path.