McKelle pays her dues on self-financed CD

Jazz singer Robin McKelle infuses standards from yesteryear with uncommon feeling on her debut album.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

Although Robin McKelle isn't old enough to have performed at erstwhile American dance halls and theaters such as the Savoy or the Cotton Club, she sings with the ease and grace of Ella Fitzgerald and the soul of Sarah Vaughan.

The young alto singer replicates the feel of a bygone era with her remarkably mature approach to popular music from the 1930s and 40s on her debut CD, "Introducing Robin McKelle." She puts a fresh spin on some classic tunes - from her gentle, love-struck musings on "For All We Know," to her authoritative declarations on "Something's Gotta Give," to her playful, flirty rendition of "You Brought a New Kind of Love."

"I have an old soul," says McKelle. "I always felt that I should have grown up in the '30s or '40s. It was a popping time for music."

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Willie Murillo, the album's producer, had been trying to persuade McKelle to cut a jazz record ever since he met her five years ago at one of her shows in Los Angeles.

"The first time I heard Robin it was like seeing a new car drive up on a used car lot. She had more wheels than other vocalists. She's got that indescribable 'it' factor, " says Mr. Murillo.

The daughter of a liturgical singer, McKelle has been singing all her life. (Her enduring fondness: R&B music.) After graduating from the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston, McKelle pursued several musical ventures - including touring as a backup singer - before striking out on her own. In 2004 the redhead was a finalist in the esteemed Thelonious Monk Vocal Jazz Competition. She's also performed as a featured soloist with the Boston Pops Orchestra.

McKelle's debut record, released earlier this month, was largely self-financed and took just five weeks for Murillo to produce. McKelle recorded all 13 songs accompanied by a big band in one day - and without any digital enhancement. ("Today, computers create drum tracks," laments McKelle. "You sing a song and they fix it with a machine.")

The singer's record label, Cheap Lullaby Records, believes that McKelle's material is very appealing - "She's got raw talent. A lot of singers would have to work a long time to learn riffs and vocals," says Joe Ross, a partner at the label - but acknowledges that it's difficult for a jazz artist to break through nowadays. Especially if one relies on airplay. "You used to go to radio promoters to get on the radio," says Mr. Ross. "Now it could happen by going online, through a blog, or on iTunes. People are looking at other resources for music. Radio is still big, but other outlets for people like Robin are more accessible and just as fruitful."

Barnes & Noble, for instance, will feature McKelle's music on its overhead airplay programs and will give her CD prominent displays. Ross is also pitching McKelle's music to niche radio programs and NPR affiliates.

For the most part, the album sticks to American classics. But it also includes one original arrangement, "Bei Mir Bist Du Schon," which showcases the singer's range. It starts out with a string arrangement then moves into a funky Latin beat. McKelle slyly matches the varying tempos in a slightly reserved but teasing manner, both in German and English, before building to a smooth finish.

"Robin speaks her life into these tunes," says Murillo, who has worked with LeAnn Rimes and the Brian Setzer Orchestra. "You feel like she's in love with you or angry with you. She wears it on her sleeve. She knows how to communicate - that's what makes an artist."

But the singer admits that her ability to connect with a lyric took time to develop. "I wouldn't have been able to interpret a song like 'For All We Know' a few years ago," says McKelle. "I needed to go through personal stuff, settle into my life experiences, and mature a little."

McKelle remembers the night an elderly man thanked her for singing Frank Sinatra's "Night & Day" because it had been his wedding song and it had taken on a special meaning since his wife had passed away. "Now when I sing it, I think how I'd feel if I was married for 60 years and my spouse was gone," says McKelle. "It's not about being perfect - hitting every note every time - although I strive for that. It's about connecting with someone. I feel at peace when that happens. I feel that's my purpose."

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