Koke McKesson may not be a household name to the world at large, but in Southeastern Michigan her resume is the stuff of which legends are written. Other singers should be so lucky, and good.
A stalwart on the Jackson/Ann Arbor music scene, McKesson made her mark playing in local clubs, working prominently with the late great local pianist and jazz singer's best friend Eddie Russ, and in 1985 took first place at the then annual Heritage Jazz Competition in Ypsilanti's Depot town, sponsored by jazz & blues radio station WEMU-FM.
McKesson followed up this accolade by working in a variety of different contexts, including jazz trio club dates, r & b dance parties, Latin jazz, and old time Dixieland settings. She also performed with the Jackson & Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestras, collaborating in a memorable tribute to Duke Ellington with the Ann Arbor Chamber Orchestra.
Not pressing for star status, McKesson has consistently been one of the best jazz singers on the scene for four decades, but she's far from reaching the pinnacle. Her gutsy, powerful, poignant singing style is still in refinement, reaching for more vistas to challenge.
Initially a church choir singer, influenced by Aretha Franklin & gospel vocalists, McKesson naturally gravitated toward the blues & jazz tinged rock singers of the late '60s - Grace Slick, Janis Joplin, Lydia Pense & Genya Ravan. She then heard legit jazz singers from Anita O'Day and Sarah Vaughan to Billie Holliday & Ella Fitzgerald, emulating her idols in a fashion quite different than those predecessors.
Never one to be pigeonholed as a strictly traditional, pop oriented or simply soulful singer, McKesson incorporates many elements into a style that is distinctive and all her own. "I've never stopped singing," she said recently. "I've been doing this professionally for 32 years. To me it's not about the money. It's about the music, the singing, the tunes, and the feeling I have, and getting that across to my audience."
Koke takes great pride and solace in making sure the audience is not only satisfied and fulfilled with her vocal expertise, but enriched by the experience. "I feel like then, I've done my job." It is then that she also feels even more inspired or able to cut loose, "and people tell me I'm getting better and better."
The new CD, four years in the making, is a compilation of standards that are well worn, but brought by McKesson & her group to new life. You'll hear definitive versions of "On A Clear Day," "I've Got The World On A String," "When Your Lover Has Gone," sassy tunes such as "Peel Me A Grape" bluesy numbers like "Easy Living," the Brazilian peppered "Sentimental Paradise," and ultimate torch songs "Body & Soul" and "Angel Eyes." "I want to do these songs, which are my favorites, and which I love to sing." Hopefully, if they aren't already, they'll become your favorites too.
-Michael G. Nastos, WEMU, 89.1 FM, Ypsilanti, Mi. www.wemu.org