It’s tough for a neophyte jazz vocalist not to be stylistically influenced by the masters she has learned from. It’s equally difficult for a relative newcomer to avoid mimicry of classic renditions of the songs she’s covering. In both respects, Bay Area singer/actress Lisa Engelken is a refreshing exception. She is an utter original.
Blessed with superlative power, control and range, Engelken can, as mood requires, be as soft as dew or as intense as a sleet storm; her interpretive instincts are astounding. She takes a cross-section of well-known compositions and digs soul-deep to reveal the unfamiliar in the familiar. “We’ll Be Together Again” has been done a thousand times, inevitably construed as an aching ode to parting lovers. But in Engelken’s skilled hands, it instead traces the increasingly forceful ousting of an unwanted paramour.
“Just One of Those Things” is refitted for a New Orleans jazz funeral, the acknowledgement of a dead relationship reinforced by Engelken’s clever interpolation of a snippet of “My Heart Belongs to Daddy,” hinting that new romantic interests are already in play. Adding her own lyrics to Freddie Hubbard’s “Red Clay,” she shapes a plea for ecological responsibility as eloquent as it is impassioned, reinforcing her ashes-to-ashes message with a subtle reference to “Eleanor Rigby.” She also reminds us that Billy Idol’s “White Wedding” has little to do with purity or hope, and artfully underscores the confusion and neglect at the heart of Joni Mitchell’s “Trouble Child.” In short, Engelken defines the “extra” in extraordinary.