Patti LaBelle has always been capable of — to paraphrase her peer, Tina Tuner — playing it nice and easy as well as nice and rough. She walked that line with elan at this performance, one of the hotter tickets at this year’s JVC Jazz Festival. While LaBelle has obviously outgrown the down and dirty side she flaunted earlier in her career, she still knows how to bring a hint of the roadhouse to even the most refined venue — which turned up the heat considerably at this perf.
The singer didn’t unveil her sensual side right away, however, choosing instead to open her 75-minute set with an elegiac version of “A Change Is Gonna Come” punctuated with moments of melisma, but dominated by her impressively crisp, supple alto. LaBelle, who’s become something of a health crusader since being diagnosed as a diabetic, manifested plenty of energy throughout the perf and — more importantly — refrained from coasting in the wake of her background singers (a practice that made some of her ’90s shows hit-or-miss affairs).
Here, LaBelle maintained a firm hold on the musical reins, ratcheting up the funk on “Feels Like Another One” and sprinkling just a spoonful of sugar on the poignant “You Are My Friend.” Her backing sextet, anchored by fluid guitarist Derrick Cummings, proved sympathetic and tight without exuding much in the way of flash — a component LaBelle brought to the stage in copious amounts.
Lou Donaldson led the latest incarnation of his long-running quartet through an assertive 45-minute opening set in which he affirmed both his grit and his grace as a player. Too often overlooked in litanies of jazz’s elder statesmen, the octogenarian saxophonist served notice this evening that he’s as unconcerned with — but paradoxically capable of winning over — mainstream auds as he was at his popular peak four decades ago.