It’s hard to hear Dayna Kurtz and not feel the brush of time. It isn’t just the timbre of her rapturous, smoky alto that evokes bygone mistresses of song like Nina Simone, to whom Kurtz is often compared, or Billie Holiday, still the queen of phrasing. It’s also in the way she refuses to be rushed. On the contemporary landscape, there are few peers with her taste for savoring notes. Cassandra Wilson comes to mind or, closer to pop, Norah Jones maybe.
Kurtz doesn’t discourage those retro connections with “Secret Canon Vol. 1,” one of two mood-setting albums she is releasing simultaneously on April 10. A self-confessed crate digger, she shares her discerning passion for “lost songs” uncovered from forgotten soul, R&B and rockabilly recordings by recreating stunners like the Blenders’ saucy “Don’t Fuck Around With Love,” Jimmy Witherspoon’s “Sweet Lotus Blossom” and Laurie Allyn’s slow-pining ballad “Take Me in Your Arms.” Kurtz also takes her chances with Buddy Kaye and Billy Reid’s “I’ll Close My Eyes,” already made a standard by the likes of Sarah Vaughan, Mildred Bailey and Dinah Washington; it’s a gamble she wins.
For all her formidable vocal power, would a champion of mood like Kurtz make it past the gatekeepers of “American Idol” or “The Voice”? Probably not. She creates music, rather than product.
The other album Kurtz is releasing, “American Standard,” is a livelier set. Recorded in part at Memphis’ Ardent Studios with rockabilly legend Sonny Burgess and his band, it drips with groove grease during rollicking originals like “Good in ’62” and “Billboards for Jesus” as well as “Lou Lou Knows,” another oldie but goodie revived by Kurtz’s don’t-mess-with-me reading. Elsewhere she transforms Elliot Smith’s “Don’t Go Down” into a steel-washed blues lament and mines the honest loss in the Replacements’ “Here Comes a Regular,” before heading to New Orleans with the Nightcrawlers for her own celebratory “Election Day.”
That Kurtz can quietly hold her own against legends is testimony to her natural and interpretive vocal gifts. Whether plumbing the Great American Songbook or breathing life into her own eclectic material, she does what the best musicians do: she shapes her performance according to a song’s individual dictates. She takes her time exploring a piece of music, allowing its melodic curves and poetry to reveal themselves without imposing flashy solos. Live, that may not make for a bells-and-whistles “show,” but it does cast a late-night mood as refreshing as it is seductive.
Dayna Kurtz performs at the Bootleg Bar, 2220 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, at 8 p.m. Monday; no cover. Also on the bill: Grace Woodroofe, Rumspringa and Terraplane Sun. Info: (213) 389-3856. Daynakurtz.com