Born: May 18 Primary Instrument: Vocalist
Numerous artists have paged through the Great American Songbook. And then there’s Sylvia Brooks, whose warmth and charm, combined with a commanding stage presence and sonic clarity have set her head-and-shoulders above the rest. A Florida native, creativity and classic musicianship are in her blood. The combination of her father, a jazz stalwart, playing with such giants as Stan Getz, Peggy Lee, Sarah Vaughan and Dizzie Gillespie, and her mother, a trained opera singer, who also dazzled audiences at the Fontainebleau and the Eden Roc, left little doubt that Sylvia’s growth as an artist in her own right would see her come to embody that unique parentage.
Striking out on her own for the first time, Sylvia was drawn to the stage, joining the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco. A series of national tours and periods spent with other companies ensued, but seeking further artistic fulfillment eventually brought her back to the musical fold, the wellspring of her personal expression and joy.
Solidly ensconced in the cabaret tradition of such stellar torch singers as Lena Horne (her personal idol), Diana Krall, Ella Fitzgerald, and Dinah Washington, Sylvia has taken the role of “jazz singer” in an entirely new direction. And her second album, “Restless,” melding the moody world of deadly dames, flawed heroes and the dreamers of broken dreams with staccato rhythms, percussive strings and seductive horns, creates an entirely new genre she calls Jazz Noir. And all this without ceding the stage to the music, but rather, remaining steadfastly in front of it—all the better to act as a bridge between the musicians and her audience, and in the process, slyly exploit the frisson between the traditional and the contemporary to stunning—and unexpected—effect.
Sylvia Brooks has the look of a classic Hollywood femme fatale, suggesting an auburn-haired variation on Veronica Lake with a hint of Rita Hayworth. And Brooks sings precisely the way she looks, a dark, smoky sound with impressive firepower that seems tailor-made for the sort of plush, palm-treed nightclubs that dotted L.A. in the 1940s and ’50s. Those intimate boîtes, spots like Ciro’s, The Tally-Ho, The Encore and the richly historied Cocoanut Grove, are gone now, but Brooks is rapidly emerging as an SRO favorite at the chic venues that have replaced them, including Catalina’s, the Jazz Bakery and Vitello’s Jazz and Supper Club.
Now, with the release of Brooks’ debut CD, the aptly titled Dangerous Liaisons, the wider world can share Los Angelinos’ discovery of her alluring sultriness. Brooks can swing hot and hard, as illustrated by a blistering “Never Dance” and an equally scorching “Sway.” She can also swing brightly, taking “Come Rain or Come Shine” at mid-tempo to ably capture the depth of the Arlen/Mercer gem’s ardor, and holding her torch high on a sweltering “When the Sun Comes Out.” But Brooks is perhaps best at examining love’s murkier corners. That she was an accomplished actress before she set her focus on singing is evident in her tackling of four of the most challenging numbers in the entire American songbook, “Sophisticated Lady,” “Lush Life,” “One for My Baby” and “The Man That Got Away” (the latter mistakenly credited to Harold Arlen and George Gershwin, when it was Ira Gershwin who crafted the lyric, 16 years after his brother’s demise). They are the Mount Rushmore of 3 a.m. tunes, and many a capable vocalist has failed at scaling even one of them. That Brooks ably captures the near-maddening disillusionment and bourbon-fueled bitterness that pervade all four is testament to her estimable storytelling skills. But significant credit is also due Brooks’ arrangers. Top of the list is Tom Gavin, whose masterful touch adorns seven of the album’s ten tracks. Kudos, too, to saxophonist/flautist Kim Richmond who teamed with Gavin to shape “The Man That Got Away” and single-handedly put the dizzying swirl in “Sway,” and to pianist Jeff Colella, who painted the film noir backdrop for Brooks’ exquisite, indigo-hued “Harlem Nocturne” and placed “One for My Baby” in an unexpectedly dreamy setting that is stunningly effective.