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Saturday, July 12, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 72.0° F  Fair
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Singer Carmen Lundy delivers an exciting set of originals at Isthmus Jazz Festival 2013

Lundy has been compared to Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald and Betty Carter, partly due to her impressive vocal range.
Lundy has been compared to Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald and Betty Carter, partly due to her impressive vocal range.
Credit:David Lovere
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Jazz singer and composer Carmen Lundy is outspoken about her desire to move jazz forward, not backward. Charting her own path, she's packed the 12 albums she's recorded since 1985 with her own compositions, winning rave reviews and great respect among her peers. So it came as no surprise that the jazz veteran's performance at Isthmus Jazz Fest Saturday night stayed true to that ideal. She and her band performed nearly all original material instead of the usual litany of standards.

"Some of you are probably saying, 'I don’t know these songs,'" she joked at one point during the show. "And that’s okay."

Lundy and her band, who headlined the fest on the way to performances in Barcelona and New York, performed at the UW's Mills Hall, drawing many songs from her latest album, Changes. The result was a two-hour, 12-song set of fresh, contemporary yet authentic jazz that won the crowd over and got standing ovations.

Lundy has been compared to jazz legends Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald and Betty Carter, partly due to her impressive vocal range, which was on full display.

From the very first song, "To Be Loved By You," Lundy commanded the upper registers with clean and fluid precision. She displayed a light touch on the tender, ethereal ballad "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings." With a beautiful vibrato and great control, she held the final note until it drifted into silence, the audience mesmerized.

In later songs, such as the energetic "Dance the Dance," she was back in the middle range, with thrilling forays into the smoky baritone she’s known for, where her vocals are perhaps most visceral and satisfying. The lyric "Make a wish, take a chance, don’t you want to know how it feels?" seemed to inspire the crowd.

One striking impression of Lundy's music throughout was the emotional depth and intimacy of her work. The songs are personal, often about love, alternately playful and spiritual, but always with an upbeat mood that borders on exuberance.

If Miles Davis was known for cool jazz, Lundy's work could be called warm jazz.

One high point of the show was the uptempo rocker "Love Thy Neighbor," in which Lundy's vocals turned brassy and Aretha Franklin-ish, and the band got its first real chance to get cooking. While bassist Kenny Davis, switching from upright to electric, and drummer Jamison Ross got the rhythm section growling, vibraphonist Warren Wolf dazzled with an extended solo and pianist Anthony Wonsey took the song into adventurous, experimental territory. The result was almost explosive, to the crowd's delight. Even Lundy, looking on and laughing, seemed genuinely disbelieving.

"I wrote all these songs so far," she said after that, beaming with pride.

Another standout was "So Beautiful," in which Lundy soulfully caressed the title phrase through a variety of vocal gymnastics, bending and sliding from pitch to pitch. The band again soloed at length and explored a host of rhythmic and harmonic ideas. It was here that the title of Changes resonated.

From sensuous swingers like "Walking Code Blue" to light rockers like "Sleeping Alone" to the dramatically spoken lyrics of "One More River to Cross" and the nuanced jazz arrangement of the one classic she did sing, "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square," Lundy's set never became predictable.

The overall impression was one of sophistication, grace and a deep well of artistry.

"I know deep in my heart that you'll return someday," Lundy sang in the last song, where she even threw in some scat vocals and got the crowd standing and clapping.

Madison can only hope she will.

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