Barbara Randall may just be the best female vocalist in Indy you haven't heard yet - though that is likely to change soon. A seasoned professional with a vocal range nearly as broad as her repertoire. Randall is finally getting around in the local club scene. This includes The Grand, located in the 5300 block of Massachusetts Avenue, where I caught her on a cool Tuesday evening a couple weeks ago.
Deluged by daylight through large bare windows, distracted by flat-screen TVs, and besotted by electric beer signs, the low-ceilinged, casual setting of The Grand seemed an inauspicious setting for great jazz; yet a lively chanteuse with waist-length braids and her band of first rate musicians - Greg Artry, drums; Jon Block, upright bass, and Craig Hicks, piano, (named The Element) - were tearin' it up.
Clientele is sparse but enthusiasm is rife at this early hour, and the first tune, a medium glide titled "I Thought About You," ends to rapt applause. The band can swing, the girl can sing and these folks appreciate it.
On Ellington's "Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me," played at a brighter clip, Randall tastefully toys with the melody, moving effortlessly from chest to head-voice, making the song her own. The band gives her ample space.
The singer is obviously enjoying herself. Her quick, infectious smile, calm delivery, and habit of walking the room, wireless mic in hand, puts her listeners at ease and draws them in.
"I don't get nervous, except at auditions," she said. "Whenever I music, I have to sing. That's just what I do. I sing."
One could say that's her "element."
As she nears me, head tilted back, eyes gazing either at the ceiling or to some distant audience, she sings "You're my thrill ... ," and I want to believe her.
The trio, which has performed with Randall for nearly four years, is a well-tuned engine. Artry's tasty, nothin'-but-the-groove drumming rotates the crankshaft, Block's warm yet percussive bass and Hicks's solid 10-finger voicings and right hand sprinkles make it purr. Randall, of course, provides color, movement, and magic.
Born in Oklahoma City, Randall moved with her family to Indianapolis at age 4. By the time she attended Shortridge High School in the early 1970s, she was fronting a girl band that covered popular Motown hits.
"We were going to be the next Supremes," she joked.
A favorite uncle introduced her to jazz.
"He would tease me because I was doing the doo-wop stuff. 'Ok,' he said, 'Let me show you what real music sounds like.' And I took to it; I really liked it," she said.
Her career and her life changed radically when she sat in with a local band at a church social. She did well enough that the band, Merging Traffic of funk and jazz-fusion fame, hired her - she was 16. From there it gets complicated - the gist being that she quit high school, married one of the band members and went on the road, winding up in Detroit soon after. Although the band eventually broke up, as did her marriage, she continued to perform steadily in the Motor City, while raising her three children from the marriage.
In 2005, her children grown, Randall moved back to Indy to be with family and to care for an ailing aunt. Since then she's gradually worked her way into the Indy nightclub scene, playing steadily with her own band and several others, including Al Finnell's Indy Jazzmen.
But her music career went on hiatus last August when a semi-truck pulled into her lane and hit her car head-on at 34th and Meridian. Her injuries - a concussion, broken wrists and fingers, cut tendons, and crushed knees - kept her in the hospital five months. Though she's now back to performing full time, she says, "I'm only about 70 percent."
Back at The Grand, the tables, lined up as in a classroom, are beginning to fill, the seated patrons staring at Randall as if she were their teacher and this were a night class on music appreciation. She blithely goes into "Exactly Like You," a song on few singers' lists, talk-singing her way through the lyrics, ala Dinah Washington. At times, her voice projects that bright velvety edge of Nancy Wilson. As I try to put my finger on who else she sounds like, the band switches gears, and Randall abruptly channels Gladys Knight for an emotional rendering of the Pips' "You're the Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me."
The class applauds loudly; yes, the girl can sing
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