If transcendence were a musical genre, Lisa Fischer would be its Queen. The stunning power and suppleness of her voice sparks the soul, a flame that burns long after she’s left the stage. During the first of six sold-out shows at the Jazz Standard, Fischer powerfully evinced the notion of music as an elemental force. The audience greeted her with an extended ovation. “What the heck,” she exclaimed. That cold January evening, New York City faced bone-chilling drafts from the Arctic Circle. “Y’all could have been home sipping tea.” Earl Grey had nothing on Lisa Fischer, however.
Led by guitarist and musical director JC Maillard, the trio Grand Baton helped pilot Fischer’s eight-song set. As Maillard began playing guitar, the singer’s voice enveloped the room and summoned a kind of invocation. It was a prelude to Amy Grant’s “Breath of Heaven”, a welcome staple of Fischer’s repertoire that forges an intimacy whether the listener is sitting among hundreds at an outdoor concert in Brooklyn or stationed in the highest balcony at Carnegie Hall. Fischer softly caressed the opening line, “I have traveled many moonless nights / Cold and weary with your love inside”. The warmth of her voice drew the audience closer to Grant’s lyrics. Facing stage left, she fixed her gaze upon some unseen but very tangible presence before singing the chorus, “Breath of heaven / Hold me together / Be forever near me”. Fischer deftly maneuvered two microphones that each amplified a different texture in her voice. Drummer Thierry Arpino signaled the song’s conclusion, gently tapping the cymbal with a timpani mallet as Fischer smiled and wiped a tear from her eye.
The mood shifted on “Don’t Ever Let Nobody Drag Your Spirit Down” wherein Arpino anchored the rhythm with a kind of shuffle. “You might slip, you might slide / Stumble and fall by the roadside / But don’t you ever let nobody drag your spirit down,” Fischer sang against the trio’s bluesy sway. Written by singer-songwriter Eric Bibb, the song was illuminated by Fischer’s colorful palette of vocal phrasings. Cupping her hands around the microphone, she even simulated a harmonica. Fischer resumed a bit of vocal sorcery by drawing the word “down” through the air like a plane taking flight.
“I dedicate this song to anyone and everyone that needs to be free”, Fischer said upon introducing “Bird in a House”, a song originally recorded by roots band Railroad Earth. Fischer and Grand Baton completely recast it with inflections of reggae. The singer’s gift for playful spontaneity shone when she brought the sound engineer (“Steve”) into the proceedings to adjust her monitors. “I want to sing my own song cried the bird as she flew into the wall,” she sang. Fischer’s use of the stationary mic was put to great effect, creating an echo on certain notes that evoked a bird’s cry in an empty room. “We’re all just birds dying to get out,” she continued, inviting the audience to join her on a call-and-response by singing “freedom” in unison.
What followed was something that the Jazz Standard likely hadn’t seen before and will probably not see again unless Lisa Fischer returns for another engagement. The singer launched into an explosive rendition of Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll”. Grand Baton transformed the rhythm into a veritable inferno underneath Fischer’s unbridled vocals. The sheer might of her voice gripped the audience until the last note. Her spellbinding performance duly received a standing ovation.
Fischer and Grand Baton took a unique approach on the Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and unearthed heretofore hidden qualities in the song’s composition. The driving power of the Stones’ version was replaced by a fluid, undulating rhythm that encircled Fischer and Maillard’s harmonies on the phrase “It’s alright”. Fischer fully embodied the song’s character, embellishing the notes while dancing slowly in a serpentine motion. It was a fascinating exploration of how musicians can so completely reorder a song yet still retain the core of its identity.
There was nary a feeling Fischer didn’t convey throughout the evening. In fact, “How Can I Ease the Pain” toured a whole spectrum of emotions. “Allow me to…go there,” she said with a knowing sigh. “Sometimes you got to go…there.” Indeed, Fischer’s writing collaboration with Narada Michael Walden from her So Intense (1991) album is the unfettered cry of an aching heart. “Every time that I let you in / You take away something deep within,” she sang. The conviction behind the words was so palpable, it seemed as if Fischer were writing the lyrics right then and there. Years after “How Can I Ease the Pain” earned Fischer a Grammy Award for “Best R&B Vocal Performance, Female”, she still finds new subtleties in expressing the sting of heartache.
“After all the sadness and the madness, it’s time to get a little crazy,” Fischer said. Grand Baton shifted back into rock mode on Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love”. The singer’s sassy take on the lyrics, coupled with Maillard’s searing guitar solo, made it an infectious crowd-pleaser. “Y’all know when you’re addicted to love,” she teased. Fischer fueled the song’s refrain (“might as well face it”) with blistering fervor. Having sung background on “Addicted to Love” during Tina Turner’s 50th Anniversary world tour, Fischer would have made Tina proud with her own rousing blend of spunk and spirit.
Of course, Fischer has also established herself as a longtime background vocalist for the Rolling Stones. Throughout 25 years of touring with the group, she’s steadfastly honored Merry Clayton’s solo on the original recording of “Gimme Shelter”. Her own version with Grand Baton brings the harrowing story alive in a different way. “I love singing so much,” she said before starting the song. “What makes it really beautiful is when people create melodies and stories that you’re able to repeat forever. This song is timeless, unfortunately, because the lyrics are still relevant.” Eyes closed, she painted each word with the tones of her voice, vividly conjuring the “red coal carpet” burning the streets. The song also spotlighted bassist Aidan Carroll, whose solo on upright bass added yet another stirring dimension to the piece.
Trading vocal lines with the audience, she closed “Gimme Shelter” with a coda that encompassed hope, singing “We need more love, sweet love, today and everyday”. The audience rose to their feet, saluting an artist whose virtuosity is beyond compare. “In a world as cold as stone / Must I walk this path alone / Be with me now”, Fischer had sung earlier during “Breath of Heaven”. Six sold-out shows make it perfectly clear: Lisa Fischer’s audience is always ready to accept the invitation.
Photo by Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo