When Tanya Holt performed recently at the estimable Winter Rhythms festival at Urban Stages, it was her first solo offering in five years. During the intervening period, I saw her sing an occasional song or two in variety evenings or as a guest artist in other people's shows, and having liked what I saw, I fully expected her show at Urban Stages to be good. Quite frankly, I did not expect her to be this good—and for "this good," read "this wonderful."
From beginning to end, she performed with grace and confidence. I was struck by how deeply she penetrated the material and how effectively she communicated her interpretations to the audience with no showiness or excess—and, indeed, with no apparent effort—and she used body language (a tilt of her head, an arm movement, opening her eyes wide or looking pointedly to the side) sparingly, but all the same, eloquently and masterfully. For all I know, all of this was the result of a purposeful and diligent application of studied technique; however, what came across was simply that she knew exactly what she wanted to say and how to say it, and then she just did it, and we, the audience, were the fortunate beneificaries.
Holt owned every song she sang. With "Mr. Bojangles" (Jerry Jeff Walker), she never overplayed the pathos, and when, at the end, the song implores him to dance, she was very poignant, conveying so much with each repeated "dance!" In Gene De Paul and Don Raye's "Daddy O," a woman has put up with enough and is gonna teach that man the blues; Holt delivered the message with understated attitude and wry humor. Similarly, she took a more nuanced and less broad than usual approach to "I Can Cook Too" (Leonard Bernstein, Comden & Green), and, so, found laughs in unaccustomed places. She conveyed considerable intensity of feeling in "I Have Nothing" (Linda Thompson, David Foster) without having to resort to obvious outward signs of emotion, and she imbued Peter Matz's "Gotta Move" with a driving sense of forward motion without placing a heavy foot on the accelerator.
She gave Ray Noble's "The Very Thought of You" a classic romantic reading, matched by delicate piano and beautifully bowed bass accompaniment; it was lovely. She took a very different approach to another standard, "The Nearness of You" (Hoagy Carmichael, Ned Washington), giving it a quasi-pop treatment, complete with melisma in the vocal and a strong beat in the piano and bass. (In these as in all numbers, she was given admirable support from musical director Tracy Stark on piano and Matt Wigton on bass.) On a number of occasions I have expressed my opposition to the application of melisma to songs that were not written in that idiom. Here, however, Holt did the nigh-impossible: unlike the typical melisma-perpetrator, she did not employ the device arbitrarily; rather, she used it selectively and expressively, as part of a centered, focused, and committed interpretation. As a result, it seemed a sincere expression of sentiment, not vocal gimmickry—high tribute to her artistry.
The show was directed by Lennie Watts. Look for its return in the near future, this time at the Metropolitan Room and with replacements for the few Christmas selections that Holt included in December.