While McKelle and her versatile crew will undoubtedly dip into the Great American Songbook during her set, expect her to also interpret Allen Toussaint’s “Yes We Can Can,” a powerful song of hope that was originally recorded in the early ’70s by The Pointer Sisters and seems so relevant to us today. As the lyrics state: “We gotta make this land a better land than the world in which we live./Help each man be a better man with the kindness that you give.” And as Robin says, “We must have hope. This is what music gives us when we need it most.” While McKelle regards her new album, Melodic Canvas, as a resolute return to jazz, she may also dust off a few R&B-inspired gems from past albums like 2014’s Heart of Memphis (recorded with The Flytones) and 2010’s Mess Around (featuring covers of “Cry Me a River” and “Lonely Avenue”), which she delivers with earth authenticity). If she’s taking requests, call out for her interpretation of Steve Miller’s “Abracadabra,” which she sang with seductive, swinging powers on 2008’s Modern Antique.
Savvy singer-songwriter Robin McKelle is a classy talent who effortlessly mixes soul, jazz, gospel and more in her compelling live shows. With one foot imbedded in N’awlins/Memphis R&B and the other immersed in swing, McKelle can summon up the deeply soulful stylings of Ray Charles as easily as she conjures up a Ella Fitzgerald scat romp. And the vivid lyrics on her originals from her latest album, 2018’s Melodic Canvas, carry a mix of timely social commentary and a thoughtful call to action to, as she put it, “foster hope at a time when we seem to need it most.” Call her a classic triple-threat.
McKelle grew up in Rochester, New York, the daughter of a liturgical vocalist. She took classical piano lessons and played French horn for ten years before focusing on singing; her early influences being Aretha Franklin, Donny Hathaway, Nina Simone and Gladys Knight. By her late teens she was more intrigued by the content of jazz harmonies and became spellbound by singers like Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Frank Sinatra and Nancy Wilson. After attending the University of Miami from 1994 to 1996, she enrolled at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, graduating in 1999 and later teaching voice classes there for three years. Taking third place in the 2004 Thelonious Monk Vocal Jazz Competition in Washington, D.C. launched her solo career and led to her 2006 big band outing Introducing Robin McKelle. She followed up with 2008’s Modern Antique, another classy big band outing, then went retro R&B with 2010’s Mess Around, 2012’s Soul Flower and 2014’s Heart of Memphis. Her 2016 album Looking Glass was McKelle’s first album composed entirely of original songs. “After two albums oriented more toward old-school Memphis soul and Motown, I wanted to search for a new sound,” she said at the time. “This new album is a shift toward music that allows me to use all the texture of my voice in a more intimate register.” Melodic Canvas is another step in that direction.