Vocalist and songwriter Susan Abod has been working hard on her upcoming Anita O’Day tribute concert, but her commitment goes only so far. She’s immersed herself in O’Day’s recordings and videos, read her autobiography, been rehearsing the material night and day, and even gone in search of a wide-brimmed hat and white gloves to recall the singer’s iconic appearance at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival. She has, however, steadfastly refused to tour the country in dance marathons, marry her drummer, have her uvula excised by a sloppy surgeon, or explore heroine and alcohol addiction—all of which marked the life of O’Day.
At the height of her career, O’Day was considered to be on par with Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan. Today, though, the woman whose addiction-fueled unpredictability earned her the moniker the “Jezebel of Jazz” may no longer, outside of jazz circles, command the same name recognition. Whatever the reason for that, it’s got nothing to do with her singing. The record she left behind—she died in 2006 at age 87—assures her a permanent place in the jazz pantheon.
This weekend, Abod (pronounced like “avid” except with a “b”)—along with Stu MacAskie (piano), Michael Glynn (bass) and Cal Haines (drums)—will honor one of the 20th century’s great song stylists in two concerts presented by Haines and Victoria Rogers.
Abod can relate to the way O’Day reworked songs to reveal fresh layers of meaning. It’s something she’s got a penchant for herself (catch her version of the Drifters’ “Up on the Roof,” on her album In the Moment). So Abod and friends will be focusing on O’Day’s solo career, where she had greater freedom in her interpretations, rather than her big band work with Gene Krupa, which first brought her national attention.
“When she was young, she kept saying, ‘I’m not a band singer, I’m a song stylist,’ ” says Abod. “Her stuff is great. It’s fun. It has an edge to it.”
Abod shares another characteristic with O’Day: a magnetic attraction to the backbeat, which helps swing the music. “And ... and ... it’s always on the ‘and,’ ” she says. “I think that way. I always tell the piano player that I’m working with, You go first. I’ll come in later.”
Though Abod loves the tone quality—particularly in the low range—of O’Day’s voice, she won’t attempt to mimic it. Instead, she’ll take cues from her phrasing, inventive rhythmic ideas and percussive approach. (The absence of her uvula, that bit of tissue hanging at the back of the palate, made vibrato impossible, O’Day claimed, and she accommodated that failing by using short, repetitive notes.)
“We’re really trying to stay true to the arrangements that she had—and the mood,” says Abod.
On “Sweet Georgia Brown” and “Tea for Two,” the two O’Day performances in Jazz on a Summer’s Day, the film of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, Abod will reproduce her scat choruses note for note. Among the other tunes in the concert are O’Day’s composition “Anita’s Blues,” “What Is This Thing Called Love” and “Love Me or Leave Me.”
O’Day has repaid Abod’s commitment to this tribute with a gift Abod can take with her long after the concerts are done. “What I got from her was how to really take charge of the band, take charge of the stage,” she says. Though a bassist herself, Abod admits she can sometimes get a little intimidated by the musicians around her, allowing them to make the choices. Now, armed with a little O’Day attitude, she’s ready to lead.