Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 14 December 2019

US singer Brenna Whit­a­ker is latest artist to take residency at Q's Bar and Lounge

For five nights a week, Whit­a­ker and her three-piece band can be heard per­form­ing songs that pro­vide a dif­fer­ent as­pect of the genre

Brenna Whitaker at Dubai’s Qs Bar Chris Whiteoak / The National
Brenna Whitaker at Dubai’s Qs Bar Chris Whiteoak / The National

The sound of jazz’s un­der­bel­ly is alive and well in Dubai this summer, cour­te­sy of US sing­er Brenna Whit­a­ker. She is the latest res­i­dent ar­tist at Dubai’s Qs Bar and Lounge, the in­ti­mate mu­sic ven­ue cu­ra­ted by mu­sic pro­duc­er Quin­cy Jones.

For five nights a week, Whit­a­ker and her three-piece band can be heard per­form­ing songs that pro­vide a dif­fer­ent as­pect of the genre, one that is re­moved from the glit­ter and the fame. From Fe­ver by Peggy Lee and Ruth Brown’s I Can’t Hear a Word You Say, Whit­a­ker’s setlist is made up of songs by art­ists who lived and played hard. “That mu­sic until this day real­ly speaks to me. I hear their voices and what they are say­ing, which is full of hope and de­spair, and I think, yes, these are my peo­ple,” Whit­a­ker says. “Jazz does have a history, I guess, of per­form­ers be­ing more or less bro­ken. Now there are a lot of cases where art­ists are alive to­day and lived to re­build their lives. But a lot of the trag­ic cases is down to a lot of things, one of which is the hus­tle is real­ly a grind and to go on stage and bring­ing that emo­tion and en­ergy ev­ery night is like sell­ing a lit­tle bit of your soul.”

Whit­a­ker’s ap­pre­ci­a­tion for these art­ists is not mor­bid fas­cin­a­tion. Her ca­reer has in fact fol­lowed the well-trod­den path of her heroes. Raised in ru­ral Kan­sas City where she be­gan per­form­ing in a the­a­tre troupe at the age of 11, Whit­a­ker took off to New York City and Los An­ge­les where she strug­gled and even­tu­al­ly made a name for her­self as a specialist in jazz’s torch-sing­er tra­di­tion.

This came from helming suc­cess­ful jazz par­ties at Los An­ge­les’s trendy W Holly­wood in 2012. Run­ning week­ly for three years, Whit­a­ker trans­formed the lob­by into an in­ti­mate 1960s jazz club – with its sleek cur­tains, moody light­ing and vin­tage bev­er­ages – where she per­formed with a ten-piece band. It didn’t take long for the word to spread, and a range of mu­sic stars, past and pres­ent, were in the audience.

“Justin Bieb­er was there,” Whit­a­ker says. “He was real­ly cool, he didn’t make a fuss. He just came with his friends and lis­tened to the mu­sic.”

I like to con­sid­er my­self a hard-working pro­fes­sion­al but I am not pol­ished. I am not a fan of cer­tain fil­ters they put on the vocals and there was a few pop songs in there that I had to do.

Brenna Whit­a­ker

While there are plen­ty of jazz ven­ues in Holly­wood – including Sun­set Bou­le­vard’s Catalina Jazz Club which host­ed the likes of mas­ters Diz­zy Gil­les­pie and Chick Cor­ea – it was Whit­a­ker’s song se­lec­tion that stood out from the pack.

It was enough for sing­er Stevie Won­der and pop-pro­duc­er David Fos­ter to make low-key ap­pear­ances at the shows.

Fos­ter got her a record deal and pro­duced her 2015 self-titled de­but al­bum, a se­lec­tion of uber-pol­ished cov­ers which in­clud­ed Lesley Gores’s You Don’t Own Me and Kermit The Frog’s sig­na­ture tune It’s Not Easy Being Green.

While ul­tim­ate­ly sat­is­fied with the record, Whit­a­ker ad­mits it didn’t cap­ture the emo­tion­al heft and grit of her live shows. A lot of that is due to Fos­ter’s smooth and ra­di­o-friend­ly pro­duc­tion that made stars out of Michael Buble and Josh Groban.

“Maybe I was a lit­tle bit too dark for the label,” she says with a laugh. “I like to con­sid­er my­self a hard-working pro­fes­sion­al but I am not pol­ished. I am not a fan of cer­tain fil­ters they put on the vocals and there was a few pop songs in there that I had to do. I had to emo­tion­al­ly ad­just my­self to do­ing that.”

After Jones’s tal­ent scouts con­firmed to him that Whit­a­ker’s in­dus­try buzz was real, he of­fered her the op­por­tun­ity to per­form in Dubai.

Whit­a­ker sees the de­li­cious iro­ny in per­form­ing these emo­tion­al­ly fraught songs, ori­gin­al­ly per­formed in US dive bars of old, in the plush com­forts of a five-star Dubai ho­tel. “I am not go­ing to lie, it is beauti­ful here,” she says. “But I am liv­ing my dream, not be­cause of per­form­ing in beauti­ful places, but from the fact that I am out there on stage sing­ing ev­ery night. This is what my heroes taught me and that’s to keep go­ing.”

Brenna Whit­a­ker per­forms at Q’s Bar and Lounge at Palazzo Ver­sace Dubai, Tues­days to Sat­ur­days, until Aug­ust 17

Updated: July 4, 2019 12:14 PM

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