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Issue No. 507, June 16-22, 2005

RHIANNON
Sweet Rhythm, Tue 21

A FABLED underground figure in vocal jazz, Rhiannon has been turning improvisation into performance art for over thirty years. With a soft, supple voice and a range that climbs to the sky, this Northern California earth mother, now 60, can mimic nature sounds, channel her Norwegian ancestors, and effortlessly coax an audience into chanting along with her in wordless polyphony. She has taught the art of improvising everywhere from a forest in Massachusetts to the banks of the Ganges; along the way she has sung, since 1986, with Bobby McFerrin’s various a capella ensembles, including Voicestra.

For all that, she’s indifferent to self-promotion, and her career has flourished largely through word of mouth. On the 21
st, in a rare New York appearance, Rhiannon will show what heights jazz singing can reach when it combines disciplined musicianship with utter fearlessness. You’ll probably hear some of the originals from her latest CD, Out of the Blue (Rhiannon Music), a mostly improvised live album that sounds as polished as if it were pre-written and rehearsed. The non-original songs she chooses honor the poets of her lifetime: Abbey Lincoln (“Throw It Away”), Joni Mitchell (“A Case of You”), the Beatles (“Blackbird”).

Her calm, stoic presence, onstage and off, is a key to her other calling: helping the emotionally damaged, notably rape and incest victims, to mend their spirits through singing. As befits a healer, there’s a thread of hope in all her music. Rhiannon will move you, stir you, but she’ll never bring you down. - James Gavin