Radiant in red, jazz vocalist Cheryl Barnes took the stage last week at Rockwell, the tony cabaret space in the Los Angeles hipster village of Los Feliz, like few other artists who celebrating their debut album.
She proceeded to control the stage in an hour-long set that highlighted songs from her new album “Listen To This.” The audience that was filled with music industry pros did, indeed, listen – hanging on her every expert jazz phraseology and vocal acrobatics, effortlessly executed in her pitch perfect, honey-laced contralto voice.
Barnes is like a rare archaeological find – a legendary artist whose reputation precedes her and now, is suddenly discovered. Actually, the artist herself has been active in the jazz performance space for years, giving hundreds of shows around the world with the likes of Wynton Marsalis, J.J. Johnson, and Quincy Jones. However, unless you were lucky to have caught one of her live performances, her album arrives with a startlingly but altogether pleasurable surprise.
While principally a jazz vocalist, she was classically trained in music (since the age of 9) and is adept at pop, classical, Gospel and Latin sounds. She also is a much sought-after vocal clinician, who conducts workshops and classes across the country. Did I mention she’s fluent in four languages? The point here is that this is a very smart woman who uses her intellect to enhance her vocal prowess. Even when she is deeply emotive, she is a singer at all times in control of her voice.
She punctuated her set at the Rockwell with a mix of songs from the album that showcased her versatility from the upbeat party vibe of the title track “Listen To This” to the poignant ballad about a veteran jazz singer with an extraordinary life in “Afternoon In Harlem” and to the heartfelt “Baby’s Got Some Awful Kind of Blues.”
Missing from the set, but on the new album, was her amazing reinterpretation of Joni Mitchell’s “Come In From The Cold.”
The album was produced by music industry veteran Rahn Coleman, recorded at Mystic Knight Recording Studios in Los Angeles and features a stellar list of sidemen including Brandon Fields on sax, John Hammond on piano, and Rickey Minor on bass with orchestration by John Beasley. Her set at Rockwell was orchestrated expertly by her husband, arranger and keyboardist Phillip Cabasso.
In an interview prior to her Rockwell gig, she cited as her musical influences Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Peggy Lee and Nancy Wilson. “By the time that I was a teenager, I pretty much could imitate any voice. To find my own voice, I had to stop listening to vocalists and focus instead on instrumentalists,” she said.
Two other musical influences in her career must be mentioned. “My grandmother was a singer and had a naturally, beautiful, magnificent voice, and she encouraged me to study music,” she says. The other is Linda Hopkins, the legendary jazz, blues and r&b singer.
She confesses to thinking of Hopkins when she recorded for the album “An Afternoon in Harlem,” written by her friends Mark Winkler and Marilyn Harris. “I know Linda Hopkins fairly well, and she reminds me of the elegant, confident, older women with beautiful homes and clothes that were party of my upbringing in Cleveland (Ohio). Linda still has an incredible energy and love for music, which she shows by encouraging and supporting younger artists,” she says.
So, what took Barnes so along to come in from the cold and enter the studio to record “Listen To This”? In a word, life. “After years of touring and working with a multitude of artists, I’ve decided now was the time to focus my energies on my own CD.
“It’s been a long time in the making and I’m very proud of both the music and the breadth of the songs and musicians on this album,” she says. But she also confesses her own obsession with being technically perfect might have stymied her from recording more.
“Six years ago I decided that I must make an album so that I could leave a legacy to share with fans and other artists. But I had to learn not to over analyze my music, and throw my inhibitions under the table,” she says. In fact, in the coming years, she says she “looks forward to doing new things with jazz,” possibly on another album.
We’re poised and ready when she does.