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In the Jazz Tradition: Nellie McKay


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Nellie McKay arrived on the music scene like an exclamation mark. Get Away from Me — her astounding 2004 debut, believed to be the first double-disc introduction to any jazz singer — upended the norms of piano-backed jazz with tempestuous bits of reggae and rock, bursts of hip-hop and pop, and a seamless merger of musical erudition and thematic irreverence. It was, as The New York Times observed, “a tour de force from a sly, articulate musician.” With a voice that can be boisterous and bold or soft and breathy, McKay harnesses the agility of a superstar athlete from the piano bench. She has maintained that adventurousness — starring on Broadway in The Threepenny Opera, recording a dazzling tribute to Doris Day, and producing a series of musical biographies of female iconoclasts. Her splendid 2018 album, Sister Orchid, turns standards into muted, moody late-night escapades: “Willow Weep for Me” becomes a boogie-woogie sprint, “The Nearness of You” a showcase for romantic melancholy. One of her generation’s most original performers, McKay remains delightfully unpredictable. In October 2017, Duke Performances staged an elaborate one-hundredth birthday party for one of North Carolina’s most inventive artists and a true pioneer of jazz, Thelonious Monk. For ten days, many of jazz’s greatest musicians filled the arts venue and former warehouse Durham Fruit & Produce with the sounds of Monk’s songbook, sometimes playing it faithfully and sometimes splintering it entirely. There were engaging talks, spontaneous improvisations, and a listening room where fans could spend time with Monk’s records. Raleigh artist André Leon Gray turned the building into a shrine to Monk’s genius and a playhouse for his legacy. Durham brimmed with “moments when the spirit of Monk’s piano playing got called up and shocked back to life in the air of the present day,” according to a rave review of the festival in The New York Times. This season, Duke Performances returns to the historic warehouse for another extended musical meditation, In the Jazz Tradition, a seven-day series featuring some of the most important women vocalists in jazz today. In recent years, a legion of jazz singers has drawn inspiration from flashpoints in race relations and the struggle for gender equality, commanding a renewed sense of urgency with their music and reaffirming the relevance and popular appeal of jazz itself. Durham visual artist Stacy Lynn Waddell — who, much like the series’ singers, explores how traditional forms can express contemporary themes — will transform the space, setting the scene for a timely update on familiar jazz traditions.

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