Dominique Bianco featuring Julius Rodriguez
Friday, November 8, 2022
For decades, critics, musicians and fans alike have claimed to hear the looming death knell of jazz, but at every turn there’s still been a little bit of rhythm on the EKG. The young, DMV-based vocalist Dominique Bianco’s performance on Friday night — celebrating her new EP, “I’m All Smiles” — was a sign of life for straight-ahead jazz.
Bianco took the stage at Blues Alley with a confidence that comes from years of well-received performances and accolades. To her right sat Julius Rodriguez, a rising star pianist whose Verve debut arrived this year, and who’s no stranger to accolades himself. The band was filled out by Tommy Holladay on guitar, Eliza Salem on drum and Knox Barber on upright bass.
The set began with Bianco’s rendition of “I’m All Smiles,” an old Broadway number, with Barber laying down a driving bass line and Holladay’s guitar adding exclamations on top. Bianco kept the song’s promise: Despite a few instances of piercing audio feedback, she smiled all the way through it.
The quintet then settled into the standards “Lullaby of Birdland” and “East of the Sun,” before cutting loose on a rendition of Horace Silver’s “Filthy McNasty.” Bianco leaned into the up-tempo swing, driving the tune forward with punchy enunciation and playful syncopation. When Rodriguez took the reins, he let the song breathe with a few sparse bars before unleashing a frenetic solo of cascading scales and dashes of dissonance. Salem responded with some rhythmic pushback, which Rodriguez dexterously played within and around, garnering an eruption of applause.
Just as Bianco capped off “Filthy McNasty” with an emphatic high-note run, the band slipped into another cut from the EP, “When Sunny Gets Blue.” The challenging transition highlighted Bianco’s penchant for shifting emotional gears, and exploring what old standards might still have to tell us about life and love today. The audience sat transfixed, glasses and forks untouched, awaiting resolution in the narrative. Throughout the set, Bianco seemed to thrive in these moments, proving herself to be a compelling storyteller through sensitive and intuitive vocal phrasing, matching and elevating the subject matter.
For her final song, Bianco chose Pat Metheny’s “James,” to which she had added original lyrics. She took some risks: At times her diversions felt superfluous to Metheny’s composition, but in other moments Bianco’s choices shined, as was the case when the words “I’m in love with someone new” drove Bianco into a euphoric shout: She never fully relinquished tonal control.
As a closing song, “James” seemed to embody Bianco’s vision for herself as a jazz vocalist. With her unique interpretations of jazz standards, Bianco transformed what many consider dusty or tired tunes into evergreen sources of wisdom and feeling. Whether in covering classic vocals, composing lyrics to well-worn tunes, or writing new compositions of her own (like “Humming Beneath the Trees,” an original on the new EP in the vein of jazz standards), Bianco’s work assures that jazz music can still matter to contemporary audiences. All it takes is the right voice to help them hear why.