With her honeyed, cloudy voice and appealing stage presence, the cabaret performer Tanya Holt has no trouble winning over a crowd. What makes an evening with Holt truly memorable, though, is where she takes the audience once she’s captured our attention. Holt’s song list is refreshingly eclectic, as are the varied phrasings, from soul to scat, with which she approaches the material.
Cabaret standards are included, of course: Comden and Green, Bernstein, Hoagy Carmichael, etc. But less celebrated songsmiths like Clyde Otis and the composer/lyricist team of Gene De Paul and Don Raye, are given a well-deserved spotlight. Holt makes them all her own, varying her approach from a straight rendition to a fanciful reinvention, depending on the material. In Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Bojangles,” for example, Holt raises a normally folksy ballad to new heights of elegance and subtlety. She is aided by a bowed backdrop from bassist Matt Wigton, while Tracy Stark adds gentle backup harmonies and issues a delicate music box-like refrain from her piano. Conversely, a swinging update of Carmichael’s “The Nearness of You” is energized by a samba beat and freewheeling vocal improvisation.
Holt’s expressive face and well-honed comic timing add an extra jolt of exuberance to more upbeat pieces like the sassy tell-off number “Daddy-O,” and the patter song “I Can Cook” from the musical On the Town. With remarkable ease, she segues smoothly into more vocally demanding entries. In particular, Linda Thompson and David Foster’s “I Have Nothing” is a gutsy choice, seeing as the song is closely identified with the late Whitney Houston. Yet if Holt is intimidated, it doesn’t show in her pure and powerful interpretation.
This rich assortment of flavors prompts speculation as to what Holt and her band might accomplish if they were to burrow deeper into each genre. The few pieces that showcase her improv skills, for example, offer tantalizing glimpses of a jazzy genie inside Holt waiting to escape the bottle. It’s not every day one comes across a singer of whom it can truly be said that one cabaret date is simply not enough to represent her range. And if a taster plate of Tanya Holt leaves the audience hungry for more, it’s not because she comes up short, but because every morsel is so ambrosial.