Jessie Laine Powell doesn’t play favorites when it comes to gospel and jazz. In equal measure, each has informed her musical voice while serving as lasting and still fertile musical inspirations. So it’s not surprising the music she brings to live on her new recording is a blend of both.
“Well, I’m a PK kid,” he said. “That’s a preacher’s kid. I was born to a preacher and have four older sisters and a brother, so we all sang in church. That’s where we all got our start, as do a lot of R&B and soul singers. But I embraced jazz very early on, when I was 8 years old listening to The Lawrence Welk Show, as corny as that might sound. I embraced that sound.”
As she got older, she wanted to put a message in the songs, something that spoke to listeners regardless of background.
“We all have times in our life when we have challenges and we need to be uplifted, inspired and told, ‘It’s going to be OK.’ That doesn’t necessarily come from a person. But music does that. It makes us feel better, so I wanted to blend the two together in such a way that it met the needs of those who love jazz, but also people who simply appreciate the message of hope. We all need that message regardless.”
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The record, titled Fill the Void, will be showcased by Powell at a concert May 26 at the Downtown Arts Center. The performance is by no means a coming-out party for the singer.
A Lexington native, Powell has been entertaining local audiences for decades, from club dates with acclaimed Lexington pianist Mike Allen to a comparatively recent portrayal of Billie Holiday in the 2012 Balagula Theatre production of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill.
“I am a jazz singer and I’m proud to say that,” Powell said. “I would prefer singing jazz over anything else. There is so much more to me that I can express through jazz. I believe as a jazz artist you don’t have any borders. When you perform jazz live once, that’s it. You’ll never hear a piece done that way again. I don’t know of any other type of genre that allows for that freedom.”
That freedom extends to the kind of jazz Powell explores on Fill the Void. While there is a generous nod to tradition in a torchy version of My Funny Valentine, much of the album’s musical feel is sleek and contemporary. Then there are the original songs, beginning with Fill the Void’s title tune and the faith-based affirmation at its core.
“At first, I kept hearing, ‘What she needs to do is separate the music. She needs to have one CD for inspirational music and one CD for jazz.’ But the more I got into the recording, the more I started thinking, ‘Wait a minute. That was not my intention when I went into the studio. I’m going to keep to combining the two and they’re going to be placed in a way to where they will be received by those who definitely understand where I’m coming from. For those who don’t get it, we’ll, there’s other music out there.”
Just as there is a dual design to her music, there is a dual mission to tonight’s DAC concert. Aside from serving as an album-release show for Fill the Void, the performance will also serve as a partial benefit for the Bluegrass Rape Crisis Center.
“It’s about the music but it’s also about bringing an awareness to the Bluegrass Rape Crisis Center and being a voice for the voiceless that have gone through some type of sexual abuse. Not that I’m going to be preaching from the stage or anything like that, but I will let it be known that I am a rape survivor and that there is a place you can go to get healing so you can be whole and not have that empty void.
“It’s so appropriate, then, because my CD is entitled Fill the Void. When I wrote that song five or so years ago, I had no idea that I would be doing this. It just came from sitting down and talking to some people I trusted. Since then, it’s been a real good experience for me to see our people here in Lexington wanting to support this cause and bring an awareness to making people whole again.”
Read Walter Tunis' blog, The Musical Box, at LexGo.com