Nellie McKay has always been a charming chameleon, so her ability to transform herself into the very model of the anything-but-modern swing band chanteuse isn’t terribly surprising. It was fascinating, however, to observe her willingness to completely subsume herself in the role of dance facilitator and really let the music do the talking at the opening night of Lincoln Center’s annual Midsummer Night’s Swing series.
The singer, who was raised a few subway stops north of the performing arts complex, lit into the obvious opener, “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” with palpable sparkle, giving the assembled crowd ample cause to try out the dance lesson that preceded her perf. Seemingly unconcerned with the fact that a goodly number of those in attendance were simply there to cut a rug, she skipped sweetly through versions of “Route 66” (an ideal vehicle for her unique phrasing abilities) and “That Old Black Magic” (on which she showed off some slick steps of her own).
She peppered her set with a couple of originals — a particularly playful “Dog Song,” goosed by Billy Grey’s sax fillips, drew a strong aud response — but otherwise didn’t stray too far from the songbook swing-dance aficionados have come to expect. Not that McKay’s perf was rote; far from it: Her take on “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” split the difference between flirtatious and innocent with panache, while the breathy languor she brought to “Satin Doll” was positively swoon-inducing.
The ensemble McKay assembled for the occasion, dubbed the Aristocrats Swing Band, likewise managed to offer familiarity without lapsing into the formulaic, thanks in part to a rhythm section with a penchant for tweaking tempos. On occasion, McKay ceded the spotlight to Grey, sticking to piano while he took vocal duties on “Riot in Cell Block No. 9,” for instance. But even when she was eschewing aud attention, it was difficult not to be entranced by her presence — and not to be overcome by her guileless enthusiasm.