Karen Carroll | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

Karen Carroll 

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It's been a while since we've heard from vocalist Karen Carroll, either in person or on record: she's been living in Germany since 1997, the same year her most recent recording, Talk to the Hand (Delmark), came out. Carroll was born in Chicago in 1958; her mother, Jeanne Carroll, is a respected jazz and blues singer, and Karen grew up immersed in music. She was mentored by the likes of pianist Little Brother Montgomery, guitarist George Freeman (her godfather), and drummer Fred Below; she also listened intently to gospel, soul, and R & B (she cites Donny Hathaway as her most important vocal influence). She has yet to be adequately captured on record: on 1995's Had My Fun (Delmark) she attacked pop-blues material like the Johnnie Taylor hit "Little Bluebird" and the tiresome "Down Home Blues" with a full-frontal assault of growls, sobs, and shape-shifting timbral contortions that utterly overwhelmed the songs; on Talk to the Hand her delivery was intermittently marred by uncharacteristically leaden phrasing and uncertain pitch. But when she's in control of herself and sufficiently challenged by her material, her combination of technical flash and roiling emotionalism can be spellbinding. Solidly grounded in a bedrock sense of swing, she can ascend from an insinuating whisper into a throaty gospel shout in a heartbeat, and on tearjerkers like "Misty Blue" (one of the better tracks on Talk to the Hand) she seasons her careworn, burnished alto with a wide vibrato; alternately dampening her voice to a teary croon and exploding into audacious melismatic flurries, she evokes in turn emotional desolation and unquenchable optimism. She'll be accompanied by longtime associate Lurrie Bell, a guitarist with the versatility and quickness to keep up with her genre-jumping unpredictability, throw enough challenges at her to keep her on her toes, and give her the room she needs to stretch out. Saturday, November 8, 9:30 PM, Rosa's, 3420 W. Armitage; 773-342-0452.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.

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