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On January 17, 2015, cellist and singer-songwriter Shana Tucker made her Asheville, NC debut at the Diana Wortham Theatre. An eclectic artist, Shana’s self-described “chamber soul” sound is a blend of Pop, Jazz, Folk and R&B. There were several instances where this reviewer heard a strong India Arie influence in Tucker’s vocal style, as well as elements of Joni Mitchell, notably in the extended forms of the songs performed that evening.
The concert opened with “Shine,” an original ballad by Tucker and the closing number on her 2011 CD of the same name. This uplifting number was built around a gentle ostinato of double and triple stops on the cello, plucked in the manner of a guitar or harp. This extended technique was highly favored by Tucker, as she utilized it in almost all of her playing. While initially unique and exciting, it grew old rather quickly, as Tucker never really stepped out of the role of an accompanist, simply repeating the strummed pattern as a folk guitarist might. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, other than the fact that Tucker labels herself primarily as a cellist. This misleading label left the reviewer disappointed, as Tucker took only one improvised solo on the cello the entire evening. Even more surprising was the considerable absence of cello playing on a concert where the featured artist was promoted first and foremost as a cellist – in fact, Tucker only played her instrument of choice for a total of 15 minutes in a two-hour concert. Fortunately, this was remedied by Tucker’s exceptional abilities as a singer and a songwriter.
The second number of the first set, “November,” especially displayed Tucker’s ability as a lyrical master and talented vocalist. Also from her Shine CD, this selection showcased Tucker’s diverse singing style, as she seamlessly transitioned from long, melismatic phrases on the introduction to a colloquial, spoken word approach for the verses. The R&B harmonies, executed with tasteful delicateness by pianist Nick Rosen were supported by a calm yet percolating samba groove by drummer Stephen Coffman. The first set also featured an excellent original song by Tucker entitled, “Fast Lane,” a cleverly crafted lyrical escapade about the dangers of driving while talking on a cell phone. The syncopated piano hits and relentless drum beat (a country train beat in the style of Johnny Cash’s "Folsom Prison Blues," fused with elements of Samba) provided a fitting backdrop for Tucker’s witty lyrics. Another highlight of the first half of the concert was a wonderful arrangement of the hugely popular Cyndi Laupier and Rob Hyman composition "Time After Time." The song opened with Tucker’s idiosyncratic pizzicato style, and featured a brilliant piano solo by Rosen. Tucker engaged enthusiastically with the audience as she got them to chime in on the chorus as she interjected with humorous quips. This antiphonal interplay between Tucker and the nearly packed house at Diana Wortham Theatre generated a warm and amiable atmosphere, and a level of sincerity rarely seen in performances by Pop artists.
The second set opened with a beautiful reharmonization of “Amazing Grace,” performed as an intimate duo by Tucker and Rosen. A powerful arrangement, this rendition of the American spiritual was one of the finest selections of the evening, Tucker’s bow releases on the cello synchronizing gorgeously with Rosen’s gently sustained chords. Following a duet with guitarist Keith Ganz, bassist Peter Kimosh came to the front of the stage for an unplugged duet with Tucker. The duo performed an exceptionally tight version of Thelonious Monk’s "Round Midnight," showcasing both Tucker’s and Kimosh’s exceptional improvisational capabilities. The clever addition of the opening and coda to Luiz Bonfa’s "Black Orpheus" in the intro and outro was an especially unique touch. Both artists did not merely play music on this number, but embodied the medium, playfully interacting and displaying the full range of their respective talents. The unbridled energy, risk-taking solos, and spontaneity of this duet were exactly what the reviewer had been waiting for the entire evening. This Jazz element of Tucker’s “chamber soul” sound infused the remainder of the performance when the full band returned to the stage, especially on a second-line interpretation of Ray Henderson and Mort Dixon’s "Bye Bye Blackbird.