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On The Rise, Singer Andra Day Comes To Newport Jazz Festival This Weekend

Andra Day (Courtesy)
Andra Day (Courtesy)
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Andra Day, whose first album was nominated for a Grammy and whose song "Rise Up" has become the de facto anthem of the Black Lives Matter movement, is among the relatively new voices at this year's Newport Jazz Festival.

Day is scheduled to take the festival's center stage in Fort Adams Park at 3:15 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 6.

At 32, Day demonstrates assurance in singing contemporary R&B; she seems as comfortable with Lionel Richie songs as she is with Burt Bacharach tunes. She also shows real proficiency in soul and neo-soul, and she's demonstrated that skill in performances alongside some of the genre's best artists, including Stevie Wonder and Anthony Hamilton.

But her real talent may be best suited to jazz. With the ability to extract deep emotions from a lyric, Day evokes the style and feeling of the blues — and its later extension into jazz by such artists as Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. Her face and feline mannerisms sometimes suggest the young Eartha Kitt, but Day can also evoke memories of Dinah Washington's bright, soaring sound, with a diva's control over words and images.

Day's voice, a clear alto, can climb as high as a low soprano to score dramatic points. It's a strikingly alert, mature instrument that she controls with vibrato, frenetic stresses and blurred colorings.

Her covers of other artists' songs can produce stunning results. Her interpretations of work by Eminem, Marvin Gaye and even Biggie Smalls are infused with a glistening jazz patina and emotive layering, transforming the originals with new depth and meaning.

Day, born Cassandra Monique Batie, grew up in San Diego, where she sang in the choir of the First United Methodist Church in Chula Vista. It was surely at church that she heard and absorbed the black sacred vocal stylings at the very root of jazz, learning the techniques that form the core of the music: melisma, melodic repetition, call-and-response patterns, vocal effects from growling to humming to scat, and complex rhythms that encourage communal participation.

After studying at the San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts, Day released her first album, "Cheers to the Fall," to widespread critical acclaim. Protesters across the country embraced the single from that album, "Rise Up," for its intense, revolutionary tone, which gives it the cathartic and performative power of earlier freedom songs from the civil rights and black power movements.

Others interpret "Rise Up" as an ode to Maya Angelou's poem "Still I Rise," an inspiration to the black womanist movement and a personal affirmation of womanhood in the face of existential assaults. So, when they listen to "Rise Up," they hear Angelou:

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies;
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I'll rise.

In an NPR Tiny Desk Concert, Day sings three songs with beauty and serene high-mindedness. The first, in particular, highlights her great potential. Sung with sustained emotional lushness, the opening lines of "Forever Mine" imply vulnerability, if not heartbreak:

My heart has been a chessboard
Making moves and losing out
Played so many times before
And there ain't nothing to brag about

But this must be a new brew
When you're gone I'm singing "Blue Moon"
You turn me all the way around
And I'm tired of the fine line
I just want you to be forever mine
Be forever mine

It was this song, Tiny Desk host Bob Boilen noted at the time, that led him to break his usual rule and book Day for the show without having seen her perform live. The gamble paid off.

"When Day started warming up for this set," Boilen wrote, "I could see that she was born to perform. She's able to channel the likes of Nina Simone and Billie Holiday in songs that feel candid and vulnerable, but not understated."

Indeed. Day's skillful, soulful performance brings sincerity and confidence to the lyric. And it showcases her preternatural talent and disciplined technique, her seriousness in tackling weighty subjects and her steely, unflinching spiritual strength.

Related:

Kevin C. Peterson Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Kevin C. Peterson is founder of the New Democracy Coalition.

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