Area's Jazz Cup Runneth Over

WHEN IT COMES TO creative jazz singers, the Bay Area's cup runneth over, and the coming weeks bring a brimming mug of excellent artists to local venues.

Let's start with the second chapter of the unfolding musical love affair between the stylish Alameda-based vocalist Natasha Miller and octogenarian songwriter Bobby Sharp, who penned the Ray Charles hit "Unchain My Heart." With her 2004 album, "I Had a Feelin'," Miller revived 11 mostly forgotten gems by Sharp, who had languished in obscurity for decades. The album came just in time for him to benefit from a wave of attention generated by the hit film "Ray" (which was originally titled "Unchain My Heart").

Miller, whose rich, supple voice is sounding better than ever, celebrates the release of her new CD, "Don't Move" (Poignant Records), at Yoshi's on May 2. The album delves further into the Sharp songbook with 11 strong pieces that should make their way into other vocalists' repertoires, particularly the inviting, naturally swinging title track, the finger-popping "Stolen Love (On Highway 99)," and "Don't Set Me Free," a song Sharp wrote for Charles as an answer to "Unchain My Heart."

A first-class production all the way, the album was recorded and mixed by the esteemed Leslie Ann Jones at Skywalker Sound, and features consistently smart arrangements by pianists Josh Nelson, Larry Dunlap, Bill Bell and vocalist Ellen Robinson. The CD packaging itself is beautiful, with all the lyrics and a generous helping of photos. For Miller, the new project was an unexpected spinoff from the first album, made possible when Sharp kept digging into his long-neglected chest of tunes.

"At first he sent me a batch of his songs and they were wonderful, and I recorded them," Miller said. "But he held out on me. A few months later he'd say, 'I found this one in the closet.' Now I've got about 65 songs of Bobby's and he's filtered out the dubs, if there were ever any, because they're all viable."

For her performance at Yoshi's, Miller will be accompanied by the rising Los Angeles pianist Josh Nelson, bassist Dan Feiszli, veteran drummer David Rokeach, trumpeter Jeff Lewis, saxophonist Rob Roth and violist Liz Prior. Sharp will also be on hand to join her for a tune or two on vocals and piano. A quietly charismatic performer himself, Sharp recently released his first album in four decades, "The Fantasy Sessions," a highly satisfying session produced by Miller. Offering his own versions of his original pieces, Sharp is a natural interpreter with a real sense of drama.

Details: Miller performs 8 and 10 p.m. May 2 at Yoshi's. Tickets are $10-$16. Contact 510-238-9200 or www.yoshis.com.

Andy Gilbert - Contra Costa Times (Apr 20, 2006)