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Nellie McKay Sings Homemades and Standards at Café Carlyle

With a head full of blond curls, and wearing a glittery blouse, Nellie McKay flounced into Café Carlyle on Tuesday evening, ushering a gust of downtown freshness into this elegant uptown precinct. Ms. McKay, 31, has been a presence on the cultural scene for at least a decade. But she still wears the mystique of a willful prodigy who is smarter, more talented and hipper than everyone else: a performer who answers only to herself. Gifts that others spend years refining seem to come naturally to her.

Ms. McKay has merely to sit down at the piano, open her mouth, and out comes the sweet lilting sound of a classic pop-jazz singer, a mixture of Mildred Bailey, Billie Holiday and Doris Day, paradoxically sophisticated and girlish. There is a subtle bounce in her delivery as she lingers behind a phrase just long enough to convey a steady pulse of swing.

Her new show, “Nellie With a Z” is a 50-50 mixture of standards and original material. Because of the uncanny accuracy of her ear, she can write and sing in any style, and you can’t always be certain that one of her original songs is not an obscure period piece. Her impeccable renditions of “Skylark,” “Midnight Sun,” “I Cover the Waterfront” and “Moon River” (in Portuguese) were dreamy and light. If you closed your eyes and listened, you were transported to the land of long ago and far away. But she also delivered an original up-to-the-minute hip-hop ditty, “Russky Rap,” timed for the Winter Olympics.

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