BWW Review: Kristen Lee Sergeant SMOLDER Burns Hot at Birdland
"How do you know this lady?"
"We became friends, back in the day, doing chorus calls together. One day she discovered that jazz fed her soul more than musical theater, so she shifted gears ."
That was me talking to Marci Reid, my plus one at Birdland, who had called me a few weeks earlier to ask if I was planning on reviewing Kristen Lee Sergeant. Being unfamiliar with Ms. Sergeant's work, and having faith in Marci's always good taste, I canceled the plans that I had for October 29th and sent in a request for press seats to KRISTEN LEE SERGEANT'S "SMOLDER."
Marci Reid, I owe you a night out with a bottle of Montepulciano.
Oh my gosh. That was my immediate reaction to Kristen Lee Sergeant. Oh my gosh, oh my goodness, golly Moses, holy wow. OMG. Those are the thoughts that were going through my head as I watched the jazz set presented by Kristen Lee Sergeant and friends in the Birdland Theater. Sometimes, though, there were no thoughts in my head, as I sat in my seat, eyes closed, living in a private reverie, a fantastical remembrance of the most grown-up, thought-provoking, sex-invoking, deep, dark, intimate, intense moments of my entire life ... and some moments that existed only in my mind. This night of musical thaumaturgy was a much-needed reminder of when and why I began my love affair with jazz, and the creators who bring it into the world.
Kristen Lee Sergeant, welcome to my world.
People have told me, to my face, that they don't like listening to jazz because the arrangements are so intricate that they prevent the singers of jazz music from performing the songs with any real emotional content. Having been a fan of jazz singers and instrumentalists for a long time, I never bothered to argue with people who expressed this dislike for me. I might offer that when one listens to a jazz singer, it isn't about getting emotion from the story in the lyrics - it's about the story in the music, the story in the proficiency of the singer, it's about the story in their vocal stylings and the musicianship. The jazz singer provides all of this artistry for the listener to take, so as to find the emotions that that artistry creates inside of them. Kristen Lee Sergeant has risen to the occasion and has every tool, every skill, every intention of causing inside of her listeners every emotion a person can feel, all of which she achieves in the most splendidly excessive, intricately contained, theatrically subdued knowing sass. She is an enigmatic ball of fire, energetically laid back, and cool, oh so cool, from the pointed toe of her pump to last wild curl on her strawberry blonde head.
Ms. Sergeant's show at Birdland was titled SMOLDER because that is the name of her new CD and much of the music performed on the evening was taken right from the phenomenal recording. Of the 12 songs performed, 9 were from SMOLDER and having heard them live, I can say the CD is definitely worth buying. With tried and true songs by Jerome Kern, Cole Porter and Cy Coleman, the musical traditionalist will be satisfied, but the CD includes compositions by Sergeant that speak volumes about the depth of her songwriting skills. Her live performance of "Balm/Burn" was electrifying, alone worth the price of admission, as were her performances of pop classics "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" and "True" (that's right, Spandau Ballet), both of which were arranged in insanely new and blistering ways, but the fact of the matter is that every moment of SMOLDER was new. Ms. Sergeant and her musical director Jeb Patton have put an exciting new spin on every song she sings. Only one song in the show was instantly recognizable, the classic "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes," while every other tune was like a musical game of surprise - and when the lyrics presented and audience members recognized "It's All Right With Me" or "I'm Beginning to See The Light," there was a collective ah-ha moment before they settled back into their chairs to enjoy the unfolding of the performance.
Ms. Sergeant was both smart and kind enough to bring to the stage musicians that upped the ante for the audience, musicians so good that Sergeant had no choice but to turn huge portions of her performance time to them for solos that had the crowd shouting. With Cameron Brown on bass, Henry Conerway IIII on drums and Jody Redhage Ferber on cello, Kristen Lee was already ahead of the curve, but when word got out that her special guest for the evening would be the incomparable Ted Nash, people came out specifically to hear him play, and one hopes this is not the last time it happens because there is a special energy that volleys between the two musicians and the music, a chemistry that brought excitement and iphones into the room. Even the most ardent listeners were scrambling to film the musical noteplay between Kristen's voice and Ted's saxophone and flute, and while this writer is usually perturbed by iphone screens up in the air during a show, it was difficult to argue on this night, because what was happening up on that stage was that special.
Throughout the set, Kristen took time out to speak with the audience, sometimes just to chat, others to explain, maybe just to flirt, possibly to lead the way, and during these moments one might be apt to notice that even in the moments when not singing, there is a musical quality to her speech pattern to her casual and eloquent chatter - harmony simply flows from her at every turn.
Highlights in the evening of highlights included the original "Afterglow," which conjured images of late nights in L.A., cigarettes, scotch, and illicit liaisons, and "Midnight Sun," a song that began with a cacophony that was like a musical representation of Jackson Pollock, Hubert Selby jr. and Orson Wells all rolled into one, before settling down into pure Anito O'Day. It was heart-racing and chill-inducing, but then every moment of SMOLDER was a carnival ride of emotions... you know, those things you don't get when listening to jazz music?
Well, naysayers, Kristen Lee Sergeant is providing evidence to the contrary, and you will never find yourselves so happily proven wrong.
Follow Kristen Lee Sergeant on Instagram @klsergeant and Twitter @KristenLSerg
To learn about all things Kristen Lee Sergeant visit her Website
Photos by Stephen Mosher