December 1, 2017
By Howard Reich, Chicago Tribune
How is it possible that a singer of Carmen Lundy’s stature and achievement hadn’t made her Chicago debut as bandleader until Thursday night at the Jazz Showcase?
Considering the ambition and expressive breadth of Lundy’s opening-night set, the decadeslong delay seems all the more unfathomable.
“It’s a long time coming,” Lundy told the audience, reflecting on “the remarkable incident of me being here for the first time in my career.”
And quite a career it has been, with Lundy releasing more than a dozen albums, her latest — “Code Noir” — packed with the unabashedly idiosyncratic songwriting that long has been her hallmark.
In person, Lundy exuded every inch the charismatic nature one expected from her recorded work, plus something more important: a voice of many shades that stretched across several octaves. Though Lundy occasionally overplayed this room, which values intimacy above all else, she clearly possesses a compelling instrument and knows how to use it for dramatic effect.
Not surprisingly, Lundy devoted a significant portion of her show to “Code Noir,” a collection of original songs of unconventional character and structure, but each with a distinct message at its core.
In the aptly named “Live Out Loud,” she made quite an impression with her sheer range of pitch, the singer bounding from husky low notes to imploring pitches up in the stratosphere of her instrument. This was an operatic performance of outsized dimensions, Lundy conveying a spirit of affirmation and hope.
The singer turned in some of her most striking work in “Whatever It Takes,” also from “Code Noir,” Lundy tracing sinuous melodies that progressed in unexpected ways. It takes considerable craft and control to spin such winding phrases at a slow-ballad tempo, all the while sustaining dusky vocal colors. The philosophical underpinning of the song heightened its impact.
Lundy produced great gales of sound in her “Black and Blue,” an outcry against racism that gave passionate voice to anger. Though it’s true that Lundy exceeded decibel capacity for the close confines of the Jazz Showcase, there was no mistaking the fire and fervor of this work, nor the reasons she hit so hard. In this way, she recalled singer Abbey Lincoln screaming against injustice in the classic protest piece “We Insist! Freedom Now Suite.”
That landmark 1960 recording, which Lincoln created with drummer Max Roach and Chicago lyricist Oscar Brown Jr., underscored parallels between Brown’s work and Lundy’s. For each created songs steeped in social consciousness and responsibility, and each delivered her work, fearlessly, as a call for justice.
In a set that spanned ballads, blues and up-tempo romps, Lundy dug most deeply into jazz technique in “Afterglow,” from “Code Noir.” Her fast-moving lines, ricocheting up and down the scale, pointed to a singer fluent in bebop methodology but also able to push beyond it.
Lundy’s efforts were undergirded by a first-rate band, with Patrice Rushen generating energy at the piano, drummer Jamison Ross and bassist Kenny Davis giving Lundy the rhythmic flexibility she required, and former Chicagoan Jeff Parker playing guitar as succinctly and imaginatively as ever.
Lundy closed the set with “The Island, the Sea, and You,” from “Code Noir,” her wordless opening vocal lines — like the rest of the song — a balm after all that had come before. Clearly, she knows how to pace a show, where to ratchet up the intensity, and when it’s time to let everything settle back to earth.
Howard Reich is a Tribune critic.
When: 8 and 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 4 and 8 p.m. Sunday Where: Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth Court Tickets” $20-$40; 312-360-0234 or www.jazzshowcase.com