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December 2008

Nicole Henry
The Very Thought of You
Banister Records

There seems a longstanding belief among pop divas that bigger is always better, an almost unwavering conviction that going for the gusto is the wise choice. Streisand is often guilty of it, as always is Celine Dion. Their hearts do go on, not with the emotional subtlety and deep lyrical appreciation that is the mark of any great jazz singer, but with thumping grandiosity.

It’s a hard habit to break, but both Linda Ronstadt and Natalie Cole have, in recent years, managed to temper the histrionics, ratcheting up their jazz cred in the process. Hopefully, with a little more seasoning, Nicole Henry will follow suit. This is Henry’s third collection of tunes drawn largely from the Great American Songbook, following her 2004 debut with The Nearness of You and 2005’s Asia-only release Teach Me Tonight. That she has a great and powerful voice is undeniable. Yet sounding a lot like Vanessa Williams, she still can’t resist the whopping gesture. Consider, for example, how she damages the romantic delicacy of “That’s All” by drowning it in over-caffeinated urgency, adds an inappropriate slam-bang finish to Irving Berlin’s gently bruised “What’ll I Do” and completely misses the quiet introspection that Jobim’s “Waters of March” demands.

Still, there’s enough evidence here to suggest that Henry has the skill to modulate her fire. A fine treatment of the Gershwins’ “I Can’t Be Bothered Now” finds her in an easier, mellower groove. Her gentle “All the Way” remains admirably petal-soft throughout. And, using her power to proper effect, she delivers a heavens-scraping “At Last” nearly as grand as Etta James’.

Originally published in December 2008
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