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Nellie McKay: Sister Orchid (Palmetto)

Review of album by vocalist with a distinctive take on an all-standards playlist

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Cover of Nellie McKay album Sister Orchid
Cover of Nellie McKay album Sister Orchid

If Theo Bleckmann has an equal among fearless vocal adventurers, it is surely Nellie McKay. Like Bleckmann, an inveterate genre- and era-blurring genius, the British-American McKay has shaped a marvellously checkered career: She’s as infatuated with disco, rap and rock as she is with pop and jazz; she’s equally at home alongside David Byrne, Laurie Anderson or Fatboy Slim; and she’s equally skilled at celebrating Frank Zappa, Doris Day or transgender pianist and bandleader Billy Tipton.

The irrepressible McKay enters this all-standards playlist astride a calliope-driven carousel, her whirling “My Romance” evincing Peggy Lee. Inspired, as she suggests in the liner notes, by the heady variegation of an overnight drive down the California coast, she then travels from a noirish “Angel Eyes” and fogbound “Where or When” to tender readings of “The Nearness of You,” “In a Sentimental Mood” and “Georgia on My Mind,” plus a breezy, ukulele-propelled “Lazybones.”

Still, there’s plenty of room for McKay’s offbeat imagination. What begins as a straight-ahead treatment of “Willow Weep for Me” jumps, at the two-minute mark, to a fevered pitch, the stride-driven passage peppered with tribal-esque wails, before settling back into wistful introspection. An impish desire for impropriety underscores her treatment of Bob Dorough’s “Small Day Tomorrow,” while a sepia-toned “Everything Happens to Me,” seemingly set inside a crowded piano bar, perhaps best captures her essence: a cunning blend of Blossom Dearie’s slyness, Julie London’s smokiness and Lee Wiley’s sophistication.

Preview, buy or download songs from the album Sister Orchid by Nellie McKay on iTunes.

Read an Artist’s Choice playlist by Nellie McKay on politics and protest in jazz. 

Originally Published