Diane Schuur introduced the fifth song of her Friday night Jazz at the Oxford set by invoking one of her musical mentors.
“‘All Blues,’ with Ray Charles channeling through me,” she said before counting off the Miles Davis song. “I think. Maybe. We’ll see.”
Less than a minute into the song and the invocation became a moot point. Deedles got there on her own, channeling nothing but her free spirit as the song built up to a fiery call-and-response solo battle between her fluid scatting and John Nastos’ saxophone. With Schuur precisely matching Nastos note for note, inflection for inflection, the two musicians pushed each other into the stratosphere. It wasn’t the first or last duet the two embarked on this evening, but it may have been the best, showcasing Schuur’s still-impeccable vocal control and perfect pitch at the four-decade mark in her career.
Schuur’s take on “All Blues” could be considered a microcosm of her entire set Friday, the first of three shows to kick off Jazz at the Oxford’s 10th season. For roughly 90 minutes, Schuur crooned, growled, shouted, pounded the piano and pushed her bandmates — Nastos, double bassist Bruce Lett and drummer Kendall Kay — to their limits. Her well-balanced return set (she played Jazz at the Oxford’s second season in 2011) weighted heavily toward new repertoire, including much of her 2014 Frank Sinatra/Stan Getz tribute album “I Remember You” and selections from her in-progress new record, while still finding room for old favorites.
One of those favorites, her 1994 duet with B.B. King, “I’m Putting All My Eggs in One Basket,” delivered a late-set surprise for the sold-out crowd. Jazz at the Oxford producer and curator Patrick Lamb, a talented saxophonist and bandleader in his own right, took on King’s vocal part in a perhaps surprising role shift (as Lamb himself joked before the performance, “What are you doing? I thought you played saxophone!”). Lamb got his start in Schuur’s band, and watching these two old friends tear into this fun lyric was a joy to hear and behold — and things only got better when Lamb strapped on his sax to duet with Nastos on the next number.
Many of the evening’s songs followed a build-up/solo model described with “All Blues,” but Schuur’s inventive melodic choices kept the excitement high. She opened the set with four songs from “I Remember You,” including “Watch What Happens,” in which she revealed through rapid-fire scatting where she got her “Deedles” nickname.
She anchored these high-energy moments with deep emotions, and two songs from her upcoming record spring to mind. Her tightly controlled vocal take on Dinah Washington’s “This Bitter Earth,” presented in a drums-bass-piano trio format, perfectly captured the song’s quiet despair. Later in the set, she and the band turned Paul Simon’s “Something so Right” into a multipart progressive jazz workout, starting in ballad territory and moving into a steady shuffle for the solo sections as Schuur improvised the song’s bridge (“I used to be a blonde, but I found out that blondes don’t have more fun”).
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