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December 14, 1995 * Vol. 5, No. 39


With the release of a new CD, Nancy Brennan Strange takes an overdue next step

by Chris Barrett

More often than not, performers own two (or more) personalities. Knoxville chanteuse Nancy Brennan Strange is no exception. But while the majority of your human stage traffic is subdued off the stage, and have to psych themselves up in order to bubble for the footlights and microphone, Strange has to restrain her real self to take the stage. Over the telephone, even her car phone, she chortles and chuckles incessantly, as if someone were tickling her stockinged feet. In person, she's simply effervescent.

It's a positive trait, especially for a singer.

Strange's new CD, Les Etoiles Mysterieuse(Strange Stars), was released last week and celebrated by a gala round of Alive After Five at KMA. A charming recording, lively enough to represent the buoyant Strange, Etoiles is recommendable for a few reasons.

It's a Knoxville souvenir, for one thing—a veritable jazz who's who for Knoxville in 1995. Donald Brown turns in some dazzling arrangements and does his usual sublime and understated job of polishing the ivory. Alongside Brown and Strange are Rocky Wynder, Harold Nagge, Hector Qirko, Pat Langham, Chris Gray, Don Cassell, Jr. and others too numerous to mention, all of whom are in peak form.

First and foremost, however, Etoiles is a vocal record, and a damn good one at that. Chances are good that it would find its way into plenty of Christmas stockings hereabouts even if the voice didn't belong to an Old City fixture and small town favorite daughter. If you've never heard Strange at one of her regular Wednesday night gigs at Lucille's in the Old City, or if you've only encountered her in her more prominent folk incarnation, plucking out "The Devil and the Farmer's Wife" or "Old Joe Clark," the silken warble that reaches out from this homegrown record is apt to thump the umbrella out of your Mai-Tai.

"Jazz has become an extension of the folk music for me," says Strange. "I always heard jazz growing up, like Ella Fitzgerald and Rosemary Clooney. It's just kind of evolved to this."

Strange was bitten by the folk bug more than two decades ago, during the fledgling Laurel Theatre's early days. An affinity for the music led her to Eastern Kentucky's June Appal records, which led her all over Appalachia recording down-home folks in their kitchens and on their porches. She returned to Knoxville as a performer and has been playing, solo and in a number of bands, ever since.

After all that drinking straight from the well, so to speak, Strange now spends her days passing the water along. Working with Project Able, she visits four-year-olds in Sevierville Head Start schools, incorporating traditional music and storytelling into their curriculum.

The sidestep from Whitesburg to Birdland wasn't the result of a Road to Damascus epiphany, though. Strange says it's a natural progression for anyone who enjoys singing as much as she does.

"I'm more a folk kind of singer," says Strange. "The melodies are what attracted me to jazz. And the lyrics have integrity. All those old torch songs—I really like those ..." She dissolves into laughter, and then gathers herself to explain one reason why. "A couple weeks ago we were at Lucille's, and it seemed like I was singing all torch songs, like 'Lover Man, Oh Where Can You Be?' I looked out and noticed that almost everybody in the room was alone, all these lonely hearts. But they looked happy. It seemed like a good thing—that we could all be lonely together."

Strange may be a "folk kind of singer," but the fact only does favors for her jazz ventures. Of the two singers she remembers from childhood, she leans more toward Clooney than Fitzgerald. Her approach is strictly musical and restrained, the only stylistic infusion coming from her sultry, burnished voice.

On Etoiles she gives Burt Bacharach's lyrics for "Walk On By" one of their most memorable readings. Where Dionne Warwick sang with bitten-lip, feigned and cheerful defiance, Strange pleads for kindness after the fact. The words "If you see me walking down the street/ I start to cry, each time we meet/ Walk on by ..." sound as if they've been sung across multiple time zones from a pay phone to an answering machine. Her feathered-edged wavering pitch lends the tune an audible earnestness, and the band backs away (as most folks will when the subject is heartbreak) to allow the vocals to resound all but a capella.

"I just want to be a really good singer," explains Strange, grinning ear to ear, which is as close to straight-faced as she gets, "and the only way to do that is to sing all the time. With just one jazz club in town, that's hard to do."

A compact disc, Strange hopes, will allow her to find bookings in other towns—she mentions New York in particular.

"I have no idea what's going to happen," she says. "I just hope everybody likes it."

The odds, and stars, are in her favor.

© Metro Pulse