“I’m so unhappy,” bellows French jazz singer Laïka, a cappella from the stage, and everyone turns to look.
To her right, pianist Pablo Gutierrez Calvo rolls out a series of showy, Broadway trills, before his left hand picks up the walking bass/beat and a swinging trot emerges.
This was old school jazz at its best, of the kind we don’t see too often anymore. But deliberately so, a singular singer, Laïka inhabits this collection of timeless standards like she owns them.
Hosted by Alliance Française Dubai at Frioul on October 21, a good chunk of the songbook came from Billie Holiday. The duo opened bravely with a sparse, aching interpretation of Strange Fruit, the singer's soul bared over rhythmless, impressionistic piano twinkles.
This was an exception, as much of the repertoire was cooked with a foot-tapping bop, thanks to Calvo’s relaxed, swinging interpretation. Stylistically the pianist never strayed far from the familiar idiom, but he was a master of it — an ideal accompaniment, inventive in his solos, but never so showy as to overwhelm the voice he is there to support.
And what of that voice? Laïka soared, shimmered, crooned and walked her way through How Deep is the Ocean? like she'd been singing it for decades — by no means an impossibility. It's sometimes amazing to see how little separates a great concert hall artist from a barroom performer. The difference is often found in the audience and their willingness to be entertained. Watching Laïka struggle against the din of a bustling restaurant, it was easy to imagine her voice filling far grander and larger halls — and being met with the ecstatic appreciation her talents deserve.
Laïka performs at Hilton Capital Grand Abu Dhabi tonight, Thursday October 22, at 8pm. Tickets are Dh100.