LOCAL LIVE The art of soul singing is far from dead, even if it's taken a backseat to hip-hop. The current chart successes of R&B singers such as Akon and Mary J. Blige surely provide proof of soul's vitality, as does the fact that most of the strongest contestants on American Idol, both black and white, are immersed in the tradition. Used to be, however, that budding Bay Area soul singers had plenty of clubs at which to hone their skills in public. Such opportunities have largely vanished, and today many singers perform only inside recording studios while working on landing deals. A few get their contracts, but if the product fizzles, no one is likely ever to hear them, aside from friends and family.
Maxwell's Lounge, a downtown Oakland supper club with a predominantly upscale African American clientele, is one of the few venues now presenting live R&B vocalists once a week. Local favorites such as Maya Azucena and Michael Cheadle appear at "R&B Fridays," booked by Kerry Fiero, whose Strive Management has worked in the past with R&B divas Ledisi and Goapele. On Jan. 26, Fiero presented the first of a projected quarterly showcase featuring three Northern California vocalists who had impressed her at a music camp in Los Angeles last summer.
Neither Rozzi Crane nor Taylor Thompson had ever performed in a club, which is understandable since both are 15. Crane, a Christina Aguilerainspired siren from San Francisco, hit the stage first with a three-song set predominantly of oldies: Gladys Knight's "If I Were Your Woman," Brandy's "Baby," and the blues standard "Call It Stormy Monday." She was solidly backed, as were the other participants, by Clear Soul, a jazz-imbued quartet that is especially distinguished by member Quetzal Guerrero, who alternates between acoustic guitar, congas, and electric violin. Though her cadenza on the blues was overwrought, Crane has alto pipes that are remarkably pliant, and her phrasing at times suggested an Anita Baker influence. She shows much promise and is currently working on a demo with Sundra Manning, Ledisi's former musical director, now Prince's organist.
Fairfield resident Thompson followed, singing R. Kelly's "I Believe I Can Fly" and two other numbers in a chilling high tenor that could have been mistaken for a falsetto if his speaking voice weren't in the same register. Unfortunately, as Randy Jackson might say, Thompson was rather "pitchy." Not so for 31-year-old Nikko Ellison. The Suisun City vocalist, who regularly performs as a member of the United States Air Force Band's rock and jazz ensembles, effortlessly moved between a soaring falsetto and a ringing lower tenor during a set of songs associated with Usher, Stevie Wonder, Robin Thicke, and Brian McKnight, as well as one of his own. Spine-chilling melismata and Sam Cookelike yodels were employed in service of the material, never ostentatiously, and Ellison worked the crowd like a pro, falling on his knees at one point to croon to a group of women at a front table. It was a most auspicious club debut. (Lee Hildebrand)
STRIVE FOR MORE MUSIC SHOWCASE April 27, 8 p.m. Maxwell's Lounge, 341 13th St., Oakl. Call for price. (510) 839-6169, www.maxwellslounge.com