An Intimate Evening on Granby Street

by Jim Newsom

Kevin Mahogany first performed here in 1995 at the Town Point Jazz Festival. Though he only had a couple of albums out at that point, he already possessed the talent and stage presence that made those who heard him sit up and take notice.

Fast forward ten years to this Friday night: Kevin is back in downtown Norfolk, this time at the Roper headlining the Jazz on Granby series. It promises to be an evening of magnificent singing and witty repartee.

Kevin Mahogany possesses an expressive baritone that could make even the most mundane lyric sound as though it's dripping with meaning. That's the way I put it earlier this year in reviewing his most recent CD, Big Band. Interestingly enough, though he sounds superb fronting a horn-powered orchestra, he may actually be even more impressive in a quieter setting.

On the road, all I'm taking out is bass and piano, he told me a year ago. So it's pretty intimate.

A couple of hundred lucky folks got a glimpse of that intimacy last fall when Mahogany came to ODU to perform with John Toomey's trio. The setlist that evening was mostly standards, ranging from the familiar to the not-so-well-known. Chances are he'll employ a similar format this time around with that piano & bass lineup.

But he's been known to wander far afield from the usual jazz vocal repertoire. His 1998 album, My Romance, included a definitive take on James Taylor's Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight, plus tunes by Lyle Lovett and Van Morrison mixed in with classic jazz songs like "Teach Me Tonight, Lush Life", "Stairway to the Stars" and the title track. Four years later, he released Pride and Joy, a collection of Motown material outfitted in first-rate jazz arrangements. It was an album that I thought was going to be a career-defining breakthrough. He had high hopes himself.

I think in a lot of ways, jazz was heading in the wrong direction, he said at the time. They were turning it into a museum. Jazz was never like that and never was meant to be like that The constant about the music was always change and growth.

Unfortunately, Mahogany's experience trying to change and grow the jazz songbook with that recording turned out to be a disillusioning one.

The label didn't get behind it, he told me later. Consequently it lived its normal life, which I guess is about eight to eleven weeks, and that's it.

So Mahogany joined the growing list of musicians launching their own record labels, calling his Mahogany Jazz. His first two releases are To Johnny Hartman, a tribute to the legendary jazz great recorded alone with a pianist, and Big Band, an explosive workout drawn from recording sessions throughout his career. Both are impressive, capturing two of the singer's many sides.

The Kansas City native made his home in Boston for several years, teaching at the Berklee School of Music when he wasn't on the road. A couple of years ago, he headed south to Miami.

I just wanted to move to a warm state for a while, he told me. There's not a big jazz scene, but there are definitely people that are interested in it. I don't usually play that much at home anyways!

He's playing away from home a lot these days. In fact, he's been touring Europe recently, and will have just gotten back to the States when he comes to town Friday.

He's been called the finest male singer of his generation by many jazz critics, including me, and he's a multiple poll winner. And though he actually began pursuing his love of music as a saxophonist in his youth, he found himself drawn to the vocal stylings of Al Jarreau, Jon Hendricks and Eddie Jefferson in high school and college. By the time he graduated from Baker University in 1981 with a BFA in Music and English Drama, he had put down his horn and was focused on his singing.

His early albums brought instant critical attention, and a turn as blues belter Big Joe Turner in Robert Altman's film, Kansas City, in 1996, raised his profile. The readers of Downbeat magazine named him  "Male Vocalist of the Year" two years later.

Friday night, the Roper will be filled with the power, warmth and good humor that Kevin Mahogany shares with an audience. It should be a memorable night of song.