Before she sang a note, Karen Gallinger had the audience's rapt attention at her concert at the Santa Ana Musicians Union auditorium last January, capturing them with a story.
The tale involved pianist Bill Evans, one of the giants of jazz, who rose out of the Miles Davis band (Evans is heard on Davis' all-time classic Kind of Blue) to become a leading composer and piano expressionist before his death in 1980. Gallinger, a self-made musician who had staged the concert in an attempt to raise funds to finish producing her tribute CD to Evans, told how she'd been inspired to write the lyrics to "Catch the Wind," an Evans instrumental the pianist never managed to record.
"It was at Bill's funeral," Gallinger said of the account told to her by Evans' widow, Nennette, who lives in Laguna Niguel. "And Evan—Bill and Nenette's son, still a young child at that point—wanted to sit in the room with his father alone for a while. When Nenette came back, Evan said to her, 'You know, Mom, Dad could still be able to breathe if he could only catch the wind.'"
"That struck me," Gallinger continued. "It was very moving. And from that, I wrote the lyrics."
From there, Gallinger went on to perform the melancholy tune, her characteristic modulations and pacing—something that springs from a jumble of vocal influences and experiences—holding the crowd immersed in song. At the end, the audience was silent for a moment, as if savoring what they'd just heard, before bursting into a loud, lengthy applause.
How Gallinger, a fixture on the OC jazz scene for the past dozen years, came to do a project focused on the late, revered pianist from New Jersey is a story in itself, sprinkled with coincidence, sudden inspiration and chance encounters.
"The truth," she says, now that the album, Remembering Bill Evans: A Vocal Tribute, has been released, "is that I wasn't all that familiar with Bill's music. Sure, I knew some of the standards he did so well—'Alice in Wonderland,' 'Autumn Leaves,' 'My Foolish Heart.' But they were very difficult. Most of the material I learned while I put the project together."
Gallinger is a SoCal native who grew up in Huntington Beach, singing along with her mother's LPs, mostly tunes from Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movies and Broadway shows. She taught herself guitar at 15 and is pictured with one in her high school yearbook (Huntington Beach's Edison High School, Class of '71), looking much the hippie chick. She worked up her courage playing local clubs as a country-folk singer, appearing with Roy Young's Mom and Apple Pie and the band Scooter Canyon (named for its leader's love of Scooter Pies). "I was a pop singer," she says, "and the jazzers wouldn't even talk to me."
The freeze-out ended when she started working in the late-'80s with pianist Charles Otwell, the former musical director of the Poncho Sanchez band and something of an OC jazz legend.
"The people who didn't take me seriously started to listen because Charlie was playing keyboards," Gallinger says. "That gave me instant credibility."
As a jazz singer, Gallinger has been heard in a number of local venues over the past decade; her appearance at the Orange County Musicians Association's annual fund-raiser in November with pianist Jack Reidling is particularly memorable. She has recorded two albums for the Glendale-based Sea Breeze label, including 1995's Live at the Jazz Bakery(recorded at the LA concert space with pianist Reidling and former Bill Evans drummer Joe LaBarbera) and the 1998 standards collection My Foolish Heart.
For her third album, Gallinger was intent on working up a concept. "I was in project mode, but the idea I'd been working on just wasn't coming together," she explains. "So I was casting around for alternatives. I was at [drummer] Chris Wabich's house and looked down on his coffee table, and there was the music to [Evans'] 'My Bells.' I thought, why not do a Bill Evans album? And Chris thought it was a great idea."
But after a few weeks of not particularly productive Evans research, Gallinger had only come up with five songs—not enough to do a project, she figured. Then fate intervened.
"I went down to [Laguna Beach restaurant] Odessa and was seated at a table with another woman, and someone said, 'Karen, have you met Nenette Evans? She's Bill Evans' widow.' After spending the whole day researching Bill Evans, here I was right next to his wife! I didn't even know there was a Mrs. Bill Evans, let alone that she lived in Orange County. When I told her I was doing a tribute to her husband, she replied, 'Yeah, you and everybody else.'"
Evans did ask Gallinger to send her a copy of the project when it was finished, and almost as an afterthought, Gallinger gave her a copy of My Foolish Heart.
The next morning, Gallinger was awakened by an early call. It was Nenette Evans. "Get up, we're going to have breakfast," Gallinger recalls Evans saying. The singer obeyed.
At that meeting, Evans brought a bag full of her husband's music and said, "Here's your project." "Everything I needed was in that bag," Gallinger recalls. "It was if the universe had brought us together." (Portions of Nenette Evans' memoirs on her life with the pianist can be read at www.billevans.org.)
Besides "Catch the Wind," the new disc contains other Evans tunes for which Gallinger has penned lyrics, including "We Will Meet Again," "Time Remembered (Dawn Prelude)" and "Funkallero." Nenette made the lyric-writing less difficult by supplying the story behind each song.
"Most of the lyrics came surprisingly easy to me," Gallinger says. "'Funkallero' popped into my head almost fully formed while I was out for a walk. And with 'Dawn Prelude,' I went camping for three days, and the whole time, the song ran through my head like a movie. I just wrote the story for that movie, then condensed it into a lyric."
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While new lyrics set to Evans' songs and a previously unrecorded Evans composition are selling points, it's Gallinger's treatment of the material that makes the project a success. While she has been stereotyped as a vivacious performer of good-time material, Gallinger has a subtle, almost understated way with a ballad (check out the title tune of My Foolish Heartfor proof).
And while some reviewers have compared Gallinger's tone with the late Sarah Vaughan's, the singer cites Carmen McRae as her principle influence. "I've listened to everybody, but I'm strongly aware of Carmen," she says. "Her phrasing moved me. There's an emotional charge that happens when I hear her sing. I've never consciously emulated anyone, but her influence, her impeccable taste in material, her no-nonsense delivery, her honesty—all of it spoke to me."
Gallinger has just returned from appearances at the Kansas City Jazz & Blues Festival and hopes to expand her Bill Evans project into a complete performance based on Evans' life, one she can take to schools and concert halls around the country. She dreams of "a large show using multimedia and music to tell the story of his life. My next show [Sunday at downtown Santa Ana's DePietro Performance Center] will be a scaled-down version of what it will become. I see this becoming a lifetime project."
KAREN GALLINGER PERFORMS REMEMBERING BILL EVANS: A VOCAL TRIBUTE AT THE CRIBB THEATRE AT THE DePIETRO PERFORMANCE CENTER, 809 N. MAIN ST., SANTA ANA, (714) 550-9890. SUN., 4 P.M. $15.