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Michael Nicolella, Johnaye Kendrick and Friends

Michael Nicolella, Johnaye Kendrick and Friends

: Courtesy of the artist.

The prospect of hearing two of the most dynamic and compelling Seattle-based performers should draw any music devotee to their concert at Cornish College of the Arts.

By Peter Monaghan

In their first-ever collaboration, guitarist Michael Nicolella and vocalist Johnaye Kendrick promise music at once dazzling and moving.

Their program, for starters, is diverse and—by classical and jazz standards—daring. It takes in two of the most familiar songs of the great contemporary of Shakespeare, John Dowland; Luciano Berio’s riveting arrangement of the traditional “Black is the Color”; Dutch composer Jacob ter Veldhuis’ “Grab It!” for electric guitar and boombox blaring shards of demotic utterance; and several pieces for electric guitar—by Nicolella, Hendrix, Steve Reich, Sting… yes, Sting!

Nicolella has for several years been something of a guitarists’ guitarist, one who declines to be pigeonholed into any particular style. Rather than just attempt many, he excels at all he undertakes.

His most recent releases, Ten Years Passed” (2010) and Shard (2005), drew high praise from several publications including Classical Guitar: “completely innovative and unlike most others in its sheer inventiveness and musicality,” and “an endlessly rewarding release from one of the contemporary guitar’s most gifted stars.” Praise like that explains Nicolella’s bag of awards, grants, and prizes.

While he exhibits impressive facility across eras and styles, just as striking is the degree to which he invests himself in every kind of piece he performs. His playing—committed and always immediate—is as far from academic as imaginable.

That he would find a kindred spirit in vocalist Johnaye Kendrick is no real surprise, because she, too, ventures far from the vocal style for which she is best known—jazz—and which brought her to a teaching position at Cornish College in 2011. DownBeat had praised the San Diego native even while she was studying at Western Michigan University. She went on to attend the prestigious graduate program of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, and has for several years worked often with trumpeter Nicholas Payton, who has been mightily impressed by her capabilities. “She’s got it!” Payton exclaims.

What she’s got is a vibrant, richly hued voice that she deploys with a broad expressive range. Her swing, manipulation of time, and presence suit her ideally to straight-ahead jazz, but her virtuosity and flexibility as a vocalist makes a collaboration with Michael Nicolella a sure bet.

Says Nicolella, “I had the pleasure of hearing Johnaye perform several times and was knocked out by her artistry. On a couple of occasions she was performing music a bit outside of her usual role as a brilliant jazz vocalist—including a concert of music by Dutch contemporary composer Louis Andriessen. I approached her and asked if she would be willing to collaborate on this concert with the idea of working in and out of our usual comfort zones.”

Joining Nicolella and Kendrick on their first outing together are harpist Melissa Walsh, cellist Paige Stockley Lerner, and bassist Chris Symer, three top-rate players with their own track records of innovation across genres. As with Nicolella, their approaches to performance suggest that genre is less and less convincing a concept for them: “Lately, in my solo career as a guitarist and composer, I have been interested in blurring stylistic boundaries,” he says. “I thought each of us would lend something a bit different to repertoire that is considered classical—Manuel de Falla, John Dowland, Michael Nicolella—and jazz—Billie Holiday, Johnaye Kendrick—as well as some repertoire which is not really either—Sting, Jimmy Webb, Roberta Flack.”

Hear Kendrick knead and rip at even a seemingly straight-ahead jazz number, and her empathy with Nicolella’s outlook is clear. Witness Nicolella perform Hendrix’s gorgeous “Little Wing” and Jacob ter Veldhuis’s confronting “Grab It!” on the same program as a piece by Albeniz and Nicolella’s own arrangement of a traditional Shaker song, and you will learn that for him, as for Kendrick, there is only transporting music and… well, no other kind worth performing.

Both demonstrate that beyond virtuosity is a more essential facet of performance: the ability to capture and project the soul and guts of every composition.

Peter Monaghan writes frequently about jazz and the arts for a number of publications.

MORE INFORMATION.

Michael Nicolella & Johnaye Kendrick on Classical KING FM.

Michael Nicolella and Johnaye Kendrick perform at Cornish College of the Arts’ PONCHO Concert Hall on Friday, March 1st at 8:00 pm. Tickets: $20 general; $15 seniors; $10 students and Cornish alumni.

PICTURE: Michael Nicolella and singer Johnaye Kendrick; photo montage by Jordan Rundle.


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