Robin McKelle comes out swinging on her second disc of big band jazz, ModernAntique. The bassist plucks some fat, rich chords, the pianist skitters over the keys, and McKelle herself confidently scats over the melody while the horn section eggs her on. The mood is playfully flirtatious, just this side of naughty. The entire combo is having so much fun – and so are you – that the tune is almost over before you realize it's an ingenious re-arrangement of Steve Miller's seventies classic, "Abracadabra."
That opening gambit sets the tone for everything that follows: The singer has created a stylistically ambitious follow-up to her debut while still managing to evoke and honor the forties big-band sound she explored on the remarkable Introducing Robin McKelle. There are more rhythm and blues touches, revealing McKelle's torchy side, and she concludes the album with a self-penned ballad ("Remember") that fits in comfortably with the American Songbook gems that precede it. Modern Antique will impress the ever-growing audience who've already discovered McKelle -- via National Public Radio, her glowing press notices, or good old word of mouth -- and it should attract the even wider audience in the U.S. she clearly deserves. The Europeans are way ahead of us when it comes to McKelle; she's already a vocal jazz star in France.
The adventurous spirit McKelle brings to Modern Antique has distinguished her career from the start. For her debut disc, the Boston-based singer had such conviction about the jazz record she wanted to make that she was willing to risk her own finances to record it – no small feat, given the arrangements that needed to be commissioned, the top-notch players to be hired. Arranger-producer-trumpeter Willie Murillo (Brian Setzer Orchestra, Aimee Mann) shared her vision. Together they fashioned an album that balanced period authenticity with the present-tense thrill of hearing an artist eager to put her own stamp on songs like "Something's Got To Give" and "Night & Day."
On Modern Antique, McKelle – who's taught voice at her alma mater, Berklee, and sung with the Boston Pops -- allows herself more room to stretch artistically and "put more of my personality and my own touch on it." McKelle especially helped to shape smoldering ballads like "Save Your Love For Me," which boasts a sumptuous string arrangement, and the urbanely sexy "Lover Man." As she explains, "I really like blues and a groovy kind of feel. I love Nina Simone and Etta James and gravitate towards that sound."
As for that unlikely but utterly convincing cover of Steve Miller, it serendipitously fell into McKelle's lap as she was driving. McKelle says, "I was coming home from a gig one night, I heard that song, and the idea popped into my head. I turned up the radio and thought, this could be great as a swing tune. I called Willie right away. The thing is, I mostly never listen to the radio in the car, and if I do, it's usually talk radio."