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Review: Natalie Douglas Breathtakingly (and Politically) Explores the Human Heart in CD Release Show at Birdland

Natalie Douglas passionately belting at Birdland.
Photo by Kevin Alvey.

"I'm a black woman in America; breathing is political," stated Natalie Douglas, wryly, early in her March 21 concert at Birdland to celebrate the release of her excellent new recording Human Heart. I felt myself inwardly fist pump-yes! Douglas dared to acknowledge the contemporary political circus-which I, for one, am completely obsessed with-on the cabaret stage! Okay, I can relax-I will make it through this show without listening to a political podcast or reading a David Brooks New York Times opinion column after all. Phew! I have not entered a purely escapist fantasyland, but surrendered to the capable musical ensemble on stage. Douglas wore a long white gown (chosen out of the pile when her husband made an approvingly bawdy comment as she tried it on for him) and her band-all six of whom appear on the record-wore all black. The appearance was a study in contrast, but the group, was most assuredly a cohesive instrument.

Apparently the CD turned out more political than she'd intended, "but to anyone who knows me," she added, "that's not a surprise. I grew up in politics." The refreshingly current lens through which we were now invited to hear her songs was trumped (no pun intended) by the depth of emotion and specificity with which she delivered every number. Douglas makes each song a self-contained universe with a distinct landscape. And the world is not always contentious and complicated. "Some songs aren't political; they're just pretty," she allowed, introducing the sweet "Sleepy Man," from the contemporary musical The Robber Bridegroom.

The multi-award winning and kudos-rich cabaret veteran Natalie and her band, led by her longstanding musical director Mark Hartman, paint each tune with a unique palette; arrangements use Kiku Enomoto on violin, Patience Higgins on reeds, and Brian Nash on synthesizer, judiciously. The rhythm section of Jim Cammack on bass and Charles Ruggiero on drums is an agile machine. Douglas' voice is like the finest of character actors, transforming to melt into each song's milieu without ever losing a sense of presence.

Natalie Douglas with her band at Birdland (l to r):
Jim Cammack, Patience Higgings, Kiku Enomoto,
Brian Nash, Mark Hartman, and Charles Ruggiero.
Photo by Kevin Alvey.

Birdland producer and Cast Party host Jim Caruso introduced the singer and informed the eager audience that this would be Douglas' 39th appearance at the venerable club. For this show, Douglas and the band performed a live version of Human Heart in it's entirety, the CD a collection of highlights from her concert repertoire and fan favorites designed "to pay tribute to The Ancestors." Last April, she and the band recorded 24 songs in two days, enough for two recordings (the next CD is due to be released sometime next year).

"I Must Have That Man," from the all-black musical Blackbirds of 1928, started out beautifully restrained, then burst into a delightfully muscular piano solo, paving the way for Douglas to end the tune with tremendous, sustained, clear notes. "So you see my preference is for small tunes," the vocal powerhouse joked. Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh's "The Best is Yet to Come" followed, featuring a diverse arrangement and Douglas' masterful intonation, her astounding vocal range, and an exciting build to a crowd-wowing ending. Breathless, Douglas confided, "When we recorded these, I didn't think about singing them all in one evening-pray for me!"

While every song was performed beautifully, the most affecting part of the evening was the one-two punch of "Strange Fruit," written by Abel Meeropol and made famous by Billie Holiday, into "Mississippi Goddamn," written by Nina Simone. Douglas delivered "Strange Fruit" wearing an austere gaze, singing with a delicate intimacy that gave this reviewer goose bumps. Douglas spoke between verses of "Mississippi Goddamn": "Miss Nina said this was a show tune, but the show hadn't been written yet. She could not have imagined this election year!" Douglas made her voice blunt, full of anger and strength. Not everyone can sing these songs-they are privileged material-and Douglas does right by them. When she and her band sang, as a call-and-response, "Do it gradually-Too Slow!/Bring on more tragedy-Too Slow!" they conjured the electrifying section of Martin Luther King Jr's Letter from Birmingham Jail where he laments ". . . 'Wait' has almost always meant 'Never' . . . justice delayed is justice denied . . . " Electrifying also describes Douglas' performance of this tune, including the ragged ending cry "That's it!"

Douglas can also beautifully decimate a Kurt Weill tune. Introducing "It Never Was You" (from the 1938 musical Knickerbocker Holiday), she tells us it was the first love song she ever heard that did not go the way she expected it to, and that's what made her love it so. For this number, Douglas finds the gossamer element in her voice, ensnaring the mesmerized audience in her wistful web. For the show's encore, Douglas and her band chose a tune which previews the next record, a collection of songs she loved as a youngster growing up in sunny Southern California in the 1970s. Unable to choose between styles, she presented a composite version of "Woodstock" by Joni Mitchell, made a hit by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. The song was both plaintive and exuberant.

Douglas has amassed a bountiful collection of vocal-emotional tools and techniques which she wields expertly to capture and convey the precise feeling of each song, taking the audience on a journey of spirit and artistry through the subtle contours of the human heart. I am ready to put the top down and cruise the freeways with this fun-loving, fearless diva when the next record appears. In the meantime, I may seek her out to talk about the election. Maybe she could devise a show to help us all through these next nine months, which promise to be as brutal as Douglas' voice is sublime.

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