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Whitney James to make Sarasota debut

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Jazz vocalist Whitney James makes her Sarasota debut Saturday at Community Media and Arts Center. COURTESY PHOTO

Tampa Bay-based singer Whitney James spent about a decade performing on both coasts of the country before she went to New York to record “The Nature of Love.” When her debut album came out in 2010 it was if a new vocalist had appeared on the jazz scene. Pretty much every major publication devoted to the genre raved about the arrival of James’ agile, potent and emotive alto, which can be heard on a smart collection of jazz standards featuring first-rate players such as trumpeter Ingrid Jensen.

“Oh my gosh, it was huge,” James said by phone about the critical response. “My first record was probably 10 years overdue. I saved and saved and finally finished it and it was like giving birth – oh my God, my little baby – and so getting it in hands of people to review is amazing.”

The reviews led to James being featured last year on the popular NPR program “Piano Jazz: Rising Stars” with host Jon Weber accompanying her on piano. Marian McPartland, the 95-year-old Grammy-winning jazz pianist-composer and original host of “Piano Jazz,” had read about James’ debut album, acquired a copy and then suggested the producers spotlight the relatively unknown singer.

“I can die and go to heaven now,” James recalled thinking when she learned how she landed the NPR gig. “That was one of the most exciting things that has ever happened to me.”

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Whitney James/COURTESY PHOTO

One of the many highlights from James appearance on NPR is her expressive rendition of “Superstar,” the song written by Bonnie Bramlett and Leon Russell and most famously recorded by the Carpenters.

“It’s one of those songs I always loved,” James said. “Luther Vandross recorded a version I was just in love with and I just thought how can I re-harmonize the chords to sound more jazzy, and breathe new life in it for a jazz audience.”

Tierra Verde resident James has been taking the same approach to the Fleetwood Mac hit “Dreams,” which she plans to perform with her quintet when she finally makes her Sarasota debut Saturday at Fogartyville Community Media and Arts Center. The concert – which will find James joined by guitarist LaRue Nickelsen, saxophonist Jeremy Powell, drummer Ian Goodman, and bassist Mark Neuenschwander – is the latest by Real People Real Music. It’s a production company founded and run by Sarasota resident Dr. Karl Lewis, a dentist operating out of Bradenton.

“Her music moves me,” Lewis said of James. “No matter what venue I’ve seen her at – The Palladium (in St. Petersburg), the Clearwater Jazz Holiday – no matter what venue, her music just moves me and that’s the essence of Real People Real Music, any environment at any different time you can move people.”

Lewis also booked James to open for vocalist Kurt Elling when he performs June 7 at The Palladium Theater in St. Petersburg. A Grammy winner, Elling has been named “Male Singer of the Year” by the Jazz Journalists Association eight times. Each of Elling’s nine albums has been nominated for a Grammy.

“I’ve been a fan forever,” James said of Elling. “It’s a huge honor to be able to warm up a big crowd for him, he’s amazing and I’m really looking forward to it.”

7:30 p.m. Saturday (May 11), Fogartyville Community Media and Arts Center, 525 Kumquat Court, Sarasota; $12 advance/$15 door; 894-6469; wslr.org

Last modified: May 16, 2013
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