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Jimmy Scott
St. Paul MN, 25-27 February 2002

The arc of Jimmy Scott's life and career has been told many times: born with Kallmann's Syndrome, a hormonal disorder that gave him an absolutely androgynous voice; finding a moderate degree of fame first as a vocalist in Lionel Hampton's orchestra, and then with a budding solo career in the 1950s; falling into the legal clutches of Savoy label owner Herman Lubinsky, who prevented Scott not only from recording for other labels, but refused to issue Scott's music himself for decades, effectively sidelining his career; being presumed dead by the mid-1980s by the jazz public at large; and then, with the support of fans like Doc Pomus and Madonna, re-emerging in the 1990s to the most widespread popularity he'd ever encountered. Such is the emotional weight of Scott's story that it's tempting to filter his art through his personal pain and tragedy. But that would be a mistake. Unlike, say, Billie Holiday or Chet Baker at the end of their lives, Scott is not a walking display of life's hardships; his voice in and of itself does not invite a listener to wallow in the pathos of its history. More importantly, Scott himself is not a desiccated figure; at 76, he's an amazingly spry, cheerful man. If finding such unfortunately belated success is a bittersweet triumph, Scott clearly chooses to focus on the sweet part of it. Better to hit upon recognition in one's twilight years than a posthumous revival, right?

Scott brought his working band, the Jazz Expressions, to St. Paul for a three night run at the Dakota, a cozy supper club. After the leadoff instrumental number, Scott took the stage to sing "All Of Me". Saying that an aged singer's voice is not what it once was is usually a shorthand putdown, but in the most neutral terms, it's true of Scott. His approach has changed over the years, employing much more vibrato than he did in his youth. The timbre has roughened with time, of course, but it's still a unique voice, and the behind-the-beat phrasing that's become his signature (a technique he shares with one of biggest admirers, Lou Reed) is as surefooted as ever. Scott introduced "Embraceable You" as his "bootleg record", referring to a track that turned up without his knowledge on Charlie Parker's One Night In Birdland album; the echoes of Billie Holiday's treatment of the tune sat comfortably with Scott's. Scott is primarily thought of as a ballad singer, and while it's true that his emotional impact was strongest in sad love songs (such as "Sorry Seems To Be the Hardest Word", done as a duet with pianist Jon Regen), he also delighted in taking "I Cried For You" at a jaunty pace to close each set.

Scott's group was solidly behind him. Hilliard Greene is perhaps best known to OFN readers as the bassist on Charles Gayle's Repent (talk about a wide-ranging resume!), but he's been the musical director of Scott's group for some fourteen years. Scott and Greene engaged in mock sparring each set: Greene would act exasperated at Scott, and Scott would mug at the audience: "He really wants me to take him to the back alley!" Another longstanding associate is drummer Dwayne "Cook" Broadnax, whose occasional solos demonstrated a mastery of elastic rhythms. Swiss-born harmonica player Gregoire Maret was standing in for saxophonist Bob Kindred. I'll confess that, to my tastes, a little jazz harmonica goes a long way, and at first I was somewhat less than enthusiastic about the prospect of sitting through three nights of mouth harp solos. But Maret did much to chip away at any of my innate prejudices about his ax of choice—I never could take issue with his impeccable choice of notes—and by the end of the run, I found myself enjoying his solo turns.

The first two nights were uniformly good. But it was the last night's two shows that proved the most engaging, for different reasons. The first set was undoubtedly the high point of Scott's run; in terms of song selection and delivery, he was at his peak. "All Of Me" was the opener again, and Scott infused it with palpable longing. Next was "Dream", one of the most languid ballads in his book, followed by "Time After Time" and "All Or Nothing At All". Scott's clipped phrasing underscored the sentiment of "I Got It Bad (And That Ain't Good)" to full effect. Then came the showstopping "Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child". He'd featured it on the other nights as well, but this gripping rendition showed how Scott's talent can still suspend time for an enthralled audience, whether in a formal concert hall or in an intimate club. After that, the obligatory "I Cried For You" was a welcome, uptempo balm.

Perhaps Scott knew that topping the early set would be a difficult task. Perhaps the emotional weight it generated affected him as profoundly as it did the audience. Or maybe he just wanted to do a little celebrating after a victory. Whatever the reason, it was clear that when he ambled onto the stage again to sing "Blue Skies", he'd been sucking down quite a few cocktails. His normally happy demeanor now bubbled over into effusiveness, as he draped an elbow over the piano to sing directly to a bemused Jon Regen. (As one friend who had only caught this set remarked afterwards, "I didn't expect the show to be so... upbeat.") The introduction to "Embraceable You", which had been a concise little tale on the first night, turned into a long, rambling attempt to remember what Parker's album cover looked like, the placement of the track on the record, the name of the singer that Scott's contribution was erroneously credited to, and the rest of the personnel who had been present on the bandstand. This is not to say that Scott ended his Dakota run in a drunken debacle: the additional lubrication made for an enjoyably loose set. Sure, his voice caught a few times, and a couple of lyrics were flubbed, but he took the opportunity to stretch out his interpretations of the songs as well, reaching for (and hitting) notes in "When Did you Leave Heaven?" and at the climax of "All Of Me" that he had previously eschewed. The band joined him in the spirit of things, with Maret cracking a rare smile after taking an over-the-top solo on "I Cried For You". After his customary encore, "Everybody's Somebody's Fool", Scott got a standing ovation. And it was well deserved.