Nellie McKay: Nellie With a Z

The old and the new dance a strange and thrilling pas de deux in the singer-songwriter’s Café Carlyle debut.
By Zachary Stewart

The star of the evening emerged from behind the bar, doddering slowly through the dining room like an 89-year-old weighed down by the burden of decades of showbiz memories. No, it wasn’t Elaine Stritch, returning triumphant to Café Carlyle. It was 31-year-old Nellie McKay, making her Carlyle debut in Nellie With a Z. For a little over an hour McKay infused the Great American Songbook with a quirky hipster ennui that was at once non-threatening and subtly subversive.

“It’s so nice to be back at Feinstein’s,” she said in her opening moments before launching into Walter Donaldson and Harold Adamson’s “Did I Remember?” from the 1936 Cary Grant-Jean Harlow drama “Suzy.” Her ghostly voice will sing you into another era. She’s like listening to Jonathan Schwartz  in a haunted house.

McKay is a one-woman juggernaut. She accompanies herself on the piano and ukulele. She tickles the ivories with the greatest of ease, drawing out the kind of improvisational jazz riffs that were always meant to echo off the painted walls of Café Carlyle. She gives fresh life to old standards like Mercer & Carmichael’s “Skylark” and the Fats Waller/Harry Brooks/Andy Razaf collaboration “Black and Blue.” “What did I do to be so black and blue,” she sings in her wispy-yet-crystal-clear voice. Later she strums out a sotto voce rendition of “Rio De Lua” (“Moon River” in Portuguese) that is sweeter and softer than any lullaby.

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