Jhelisa Sings: A Nina Simone Tribute

The Hookah Cafe

January 11, 2005

Singer Nina Simone was singled out for her feisty attitude and her tendency to transcend classification. Local vocalist Jhelisa didn't start any Simone-like verbal fights with club owners or audience members Tuesday night at The Hookah Cafe, but she performed with a freedom that I imagine Simone radiated. Jhelisa sang as she walked through the bar's filled tables and sat down at the corner of a booth as the spirit moved her. She got into the music. A sheen of sweat was visible on her forehead, and she crouched down and shook her knees in response to her band's sound.

I've never seen a band and singer connect like Jhelisa vibed off of her backing trio--drummer Endre Landsnes, bassist James Singleton and pianist Brian Coogan. It was great how Jhelisa spoke out when someone in the band pleased her. After a particularly excellent solo, which was every solo, Jhelisa introduced the band member and elicited applause from the audience for him. Jhelisa was gregarious as all hell. She sported a sexy smile and approach that brought joy to Singleton's face when she approached him.

Jhelisa took advantage of the space between the band's soulful and sometimes funky jazz. Like a Terrance Blanchard trumpet solo, she sang and breathily hummed in a non-linear but somehow rhythmic manner. She picked spots to show her range, but her real range extended past an amount of octaves. Her possession of many different tones was her main talent. She was playful, sexy, freewheeling, passionate, serious, and tender. Also, she rarely repeated a phrase in the same manner. Three different times, she extended a word or sped through it three different ways. She had so much control over her vocals. She performed with an ease that laughed at the pressure to fit words into a particular space.

I've also never seen a band vibe off each other so much. Each player was so into the music, and they were all very focused and in the moment. Actually, both audible affirmations that came from Singleton and Coogan were directed at Landsnes. He was on top of the beat, and he let his personality shine through in his enigmatic style. Singleton is normally rockin' to the groove anyway, so when Singleton was noticeably passive and then came alive with a shout after Landsnes snapped surprise out of the snare, it was a big deal. The three need to form their own band.

It was a treat to hear Jhelisa and the band's re-arrangements of "The House of the Rising Sun" and Dylan's "I Shall Be Released." This song ended the first set, and it was powerful. Its political nature and Jhelisa's delicacy and decision to lovingly and dramatically extend the song left the crowd waiting to applaud.

Jhelisa performs the tribute every Tuesday night at The Hookah Cafe. Check it out before it's over.

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