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A Bit of Swing But Too Much Miss: Gay Icons with Jake Dennis

– by Owen Scrivener

Having spent a decent part of my twenties around live performance artists, there are moments I’ve come to expect their vision and execution disconnect. Showmanship is a fragile line and confidence is fundamental in making unique performance choices.

This weekend I went to G.Icons at the Ellington. Quite the young, attractive and skilled singer, Jake Dennis has a lot riding in his favour. He has knack for jazz and seems to have understood his predecessors.

One then wonders what he, a heterosexual man, gets out of performing the works of gay icons to a mostly heterosexual audience. I don’t believe there is bone of ill motive in his choice, but it still seems like a strange one. Having said that, I met with him and took part in this showcase to evaluate his performance. And that I’ll do.

Each song began and ended with a monolog, some of it preachy, most of it seeming to have little connection to each song. He talked, quite righteously about LGBT rights and what it must be like to hide aspects of self. At worst I found it dull.

Behind the stage he was quite friendly and comfortable speaking. But as he got up his performance choices became a hurdle. A crotch.

Some of the more well-known pioneers of stage performance utilised their disadvantages to empower their character. Sincerity to one’s self is very much the difference between a singer and a showman.

Jake’s repetoir included select works of Madonna, Sam Smith, Judy Garland and Cher. Some of the newer performances to me were a miss, though he performed an energetic She Bangs [Ricky Martin].
His strengths seemed to be in the older repertoire. For a few moments his nerves seemed to be a strength. For me the times he payed tribute to Judy Garland seemed to be the most comfortable he was. He also seemed to channel Judy quite well, her vibrato, the occasional belt, even her hand gestures. His first Judy number was “Get Happy” from Summer Stock. His second was “Rock-A-Bye Your Baby”. Both done perfectly in my opinion. Unsurprisingly she is a favourite of his.

He also did some justice to “Cabaret” by Liza Minnelli and “What Makes a Man” by Charles Aznavour. And one of my favourite moments would have been his performance of “Stay With Me”, by Sam Smith. A moment I found to be moving and worth involving his audience in.

Where he fell in the remaining selection seems to have been caused by a half-commitment to vocal gymnastics and a lack of proper breathing, a symptom of nerve.

Despite a few hiccups in chord changes his band weren’t bad at-all. I got an ear-full of virtuosic ad-lib from the four-man ensemble supporting Jake. They all seemed quite seasoned and fairly familiar with the Ellington’s acoustics.

via facebook.com/poetofjazz
via facebook.com/poetofjazz

I think we can thank the age of information for convincing many singers to attempt to dazzle their audiences with vocal gymnastics instead of playing to their vocal strengths. To this day my favourite singers have been people who weren’t particularly fantastic singers. Think of Bob Dylan, Chet Baker or Janis Joplin. The strength of those performers have been not so much in perfecting their voices but in embracing their limitations.

I like Jake, he’s sweet and he engages with his audience just as Judy did. And like Judy I’d like to see him utilise his weaknesses as strength.

Header photo courtesy of the author.

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