It should not come as a surprise that Naama Kates is also an actress – she had roles in the TV series NCIS and the movies 'Stepmom', and more recently ‘The Ten Commandments of Chloe‘ – her songs have this powerful cinematic depth of intimate film noir and bluesy scenes in smoky bars, without being one dimensional. Sitting behind her keyboard, she can change the atmosphere faster than you can get used to a setting, and, in just a few seconds, the same song can go from desolated piano notes to cabaret circus.
She was playing an intimate set with her five musicians at First and Hope, Downtown Los Angeles on Thursday night, and the Art Deco atmosphere of the restaurant bar was fitting quite well the piano-jazz-cabaret ambiance of her moody songs. A smoky trombone, some classy-emotive violin and cello strings, and a rhythm section made of a bass and a discreet drumming were accompanying her ever-changing-mood keys… Together, they played all the songs of Kates’ debut album ‘The Unexamined Life’, and I immediately thought,… Fiona Apple? The comparison may be a little too easy but obviously tempting, we were at a million miles from the current commercial pop heard on the radio, the music was living in an old-fashioned world, but I am saying this in a positive way, and like for Apple, the songs were breathing maturity and gravity, even though Naama Kates’ piano was probably more jazzy; at only 27, it is certainly a rare occurrence.
Her quintet started the set with the definitively temperamental ‘Bleeding Heart’, which started with this upbeat jolty piano, then crashed into a melancholic ballad to restart and accelerate again. Effectively, she had a few of these up-and-down tunes, such as ‘Price of Company’, which could just have been a dark-smoky-bar ballad if it hadn’t exploded twice like an exuberant circus parade in the middle of its lonely despair, or ‘In The Twilight’ with its shimmering key notes erupting into some Tom Waits’ ring fanfares and collapsing on the keys once again. It was a little bit as if we were constantly switching from a black and white movie to a Technicolor production, from a few piano notes to a full orchestration.
Her youthful and vulnerable vocals mixed with breezy piano ballads had a sort of Jon Brion-esque soundtrack touch, like in ‘Tie Me Down’ or ‘Days Like These’… and the nostalgic or sometimes mocking tango keys on ‘Kachmare’ were fitting her stories of heartbreaks and longings. The musical exclamations which were punctuating her lyrics sometimes, were also reminding me what Tom Waits’ protégé, Jesca Hoop, composes.
She was giving away CDs of her album, and someone in the room asked if they came with pictures… Naama smiled and continued with the quiet ‘Before You Lose It’, a very intimate and sensual ballad going crescendo before ending into a vivid discharge of emotion with all the instruments at once.
This was what I probably liked the most, the unpredictability of her tunes, the abrupt bipolar changes, letting people perplexed, who didn’t even know when to applause at one occasion.
She and only a few of the musicians came back after a short break and played two more songs, and one sounded like a weird drunken waltz; as the bassist was replacing the drummer and being much louder, the mood of the songs became more agitated, chasing the nostalgia and installing more anger behind Naama Kates’ emotionally evocative vocals.
1 Bleeding heart
2 Tie Me Down
3 In The Twilight
4 When I’m Good
5 Price Of Company
6 Days Like These
7 Between The Lines
10 Unexamined Life
11 Before You Lose it
12 As We Roll On