(Sean Smith on Bass) – Karen Oberlin


by Alix Cohen



As a longtime observer, it fascinates me that some career vocalists, having reached a plateau, then achieve better voices later in life. Michael Feinstein, Steve Ross, Karen Akers and now Karen Oberlin come to mind. None of these performers was less than distinctive earlier on, but all now offer more spacious, yet controlled, often warmer sounds. Oberlin’s has gained particular richness. Watch how her animated hands never close as they rise and fall. She’s more open.


Trying “not to employ the overly used word journey,” Oberlin’s current show is a cornucopia of songs about seeking. She begins with the beautifully phrased bossa nova, “Night Song,” long limbed and stretching in the sun:  Where do you go/When you feel that your brain is on fire?/Where do you go when you don’t even know/What it is you desire?…(Charles Strouse/Lee Adams from Golden Boy).


The quirky “Napoleon” (Harold Arlen/EY Yip Harburg) follows as if to remind us perspective counts. Napoleon’s a pastry/Bismark is a herring/Alexander’s a creme de cacao mixed with rum . . . A little sass, a slight dip and easy swing manifests. Jon Weber finesses piano skibbling. Oberlin enjoys singing hip material, though she inevitably, incorrectly, declares herself not up to it. Later we hear a duet of “The Jig Is Up” with songwriter Jill Sobule (also on guitar), a song cool enough for Blossom Dearie to have performed.


“Paul Simon’s “America” arrives low key, waltzy and brushed, editorially ending with dissonance-perhaps signifying the state of the land. Presentation lacks innocence, but it’s musically lovely. Oberlin relates meeting husband David Hadju (rather cinematically) and thoughts that followed. A slouchy, wistful “People You Never Get to Love” (Rupert Holmes) suggesting carpe diem is bookended by “Chasing Pavements” (Adele/Eg White) marking indecision. Apt choices.


(Sean Smith on Bass) – Karen Oberlin



Billy Strayhorn’s “Something to Live For” seductively eases in on ssssses conjuring a smoky, late night, noir bar…ashes falling from cigarettes, heads nodding; a heavy- lidded interpretation, half into its cups and honest for it. Notes are kneaded. Weber plays reflectively (beautifully) in slow mo.


Two songs by David Hajdu with composer Renee Rosnes included the show title “Confound Me. ” : Confound me/Muss my hair/Dress me poorly for the season/Astound me/Be unfair… I build a nice shell of things I know well…Both poetry and sentiment are uncommon and relatable. Terseness also works for the number. Oberlin phrases like an Alvin Ailey piece, extending, testing. It works.


“As I careened into mid-adulthood, I realized, surprise, I actually knew very little.” Here arrangements for Andre and Dory Previn’s “(Theme from) Valley of The Dolls” and Stephen Sondheim’s “No More” (from Into the Woods), strike me as too flip and dancey (a cha-cha and a foxtrot) for their lyrics. Why is she looking away and not at us when dramatically lost;  a bit too much on the show also arrives eyes closed. Nor am I a fan of Adam Guettel- though the singer, to her credit, almost makes his thoughts fluid (“How Glory Goes”).


An encore of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Skylark” showcases the artist’s new vocal muscularity surfacing acoustically a capella. Weber comes in delicately as if to tie things up. As expected from this vocalist, this evening is originally sourced and combined. Karen Oberlin looks for a challenge. But, really, listen to her!


Photos-David Hajdu


Karen Oberlin: Confound Me- Songs in Search of Something

Jon Weber- MD/Piano; Sean Smith-Bass, Daniel Glass-Drums

Guest Jill Sobule- Guitar/Vocal

May 17, 2018

Birdland   315 West 44thStreet

Venue Calendar https://www.birdlandjazz.com/calendar/