Originally from Amityville, NY, Tucker studied music at Howard University and Brooklyn College Conservatory of Music and got her professional start playing around DC and NYC with the string trio Hue. That group opened for acts including Hamiet Bluiett, Sweet Honey in the Rock, Blind Boys of Alabama, and the Indigo Girls, and helped Tucker win her first composing commissions, from the Washington Ballet for two works that premiered at the Kennedy Center.
She released her first solo album Shine in 2011, and for the past couple of years has split time between her home base in Durham, NC and Las Vegas, where she's had a featured role singing and playing cello in the Cirque du Soleil show KÀ at the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino.
In a bit of marketing-speak, Tucker's press kit touts her music as "ChamberSoul," with quotes comparing her to Esperanza Spalding and Joni Mitchell, but to these ears, the latter comparison seems much more apt.
Like Mitchell, or St. Louis' own Erin Bode, Tucker isn't so much a jazz musician per se as a singer-songwriter who uses jazz musicians to realize her songs. A Tucker original like "November" seems especially Mitchell-esque, with densely packed lyrics and a melody that darts and twists like a vintage Mitchell tune.
As an instrumentalist, Tucker's playing is less overtly jazz-influenced than that of the Berklee-trained Spalding, who did time as a side musician with Patti Austin and Joe Lovano before launching her solo career. While Tucker's clearly a skilled cellist, in a band context she uses it more like a rhythm guitar or a second bass than a lead instrument, and when she does solo, the sound is more classical than bebop or blues.
Still, while her music may hard to pigeonhole, Tucker clearly is a talented performer with some appeal for jazz fans. And fortunately, we've got some video of her so that rather than read further attempts to describe her sound, you can check it out for yourself.
The first clip up above was recorded in 2011, shortly after the release of Shine, at the University of North Carolina in Durham. It features Tucker with bassist Darion Alexander, pianist Mark Wells, and drummer Brevan Hampden performing "No Get-Back"; a brief take on "You Are My Sunshine"; "Fast Lane," also redolent of Joni Mitchell; and "Shine."
After the jump, you can see Tucker performing the aforementioned "November" in a clip made at the CD release event for Shine in February 2011 in Durham.
Below that, from a 2012 gig at THEARC Theater in DC, Tucker does a slow-burn, gender-flipped version of Bill Withers' "Who Is (S)he And What Is (S)he To You?" that gives her a chance to show off a more R&B vocal style in a convincing way.
Next is the "Take Five Medley," in which Tucker mashes up the Dave Brubeck standard with several other songs, including the Beatles' "Norwegian Wood" and "My Favorite Things," originally written in 6/8 time. While the idea of doing all these tunes in 5/4 is executed well enough, personally I'd rather hear any one of the components individually than hear a verse or two of each just sort of stuck together in an otherwise thematically unrelated medley. Your mileage, however, may vary.
That's followed by "The Precious Ones," also from the same gig in DC, which starts as a ballad, eases into a gentle jazz waltz, and features a bit more of Tucker's solo playing. The final video is a brief promotional clip about Tucker, featuring some musical excerpts and quotes from reviewers.
For more about Shana Tucker, see this interview published in January of this year by the North Carolina alt-weekly Indyweek.
You can see the rest of today's videos after the jump...