Club Review: Hannah Carter

June 12, 2024

It is particularly thrilling to come across young jazz vocalists and musicians who are investigating the classic repertoire from the Great American Songbook on their own terms, not so much interested in recreating it as in discovering their own voices within the material.  Hannah Carter, currently studying jazz at Columbia University, is one such singer, and her recent cabaret debut at Pangea was a cause for celebration.  She is the real deal and brings her own style, passion, intelligence, humor, and good will to a varied and sometimes daring selection of songs.

Carter chose to open with her most daring choice, and it paid off brilliantly. “Star Crossed Lovers” (Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn) is from a rarely done suite of Shakespeare inspired pieces by the iconic duo, and her impressive phrasing and delivery revealed not a moment of hesitation or intimidation traversing the somewhat heady material, making it totally accessible and involving. The accompaniment by Levi Pugh on piano, Nolan Nwachukwu on bass, and Gerald Chavis on trumpet, was exquisite, and that artistry maintained that lofty standard for the entire set.  

Hannah Carter (Photo: Ivan Thomas Media)

Then came “I’m All Smiles” (Michael Leonard, Herbert Martin) and Carter was thoroughly enjoying her sparkling journey through first love. “When Sunny Gets Blue” (Marvin Fischer, Jack Segal) is a test of any jazz vocalist’s skills and Carter passed it with flying colors. Often when a singer’s interpretive skills are mentioned, it refers to both the musical and lyrical delivery, but it does not always embrace the actual storytelling. Carter’s storytelling is beholden to no one—her vital, fresh, personal style sets her apart. She made the complexity and mystery of this classic story entirely her own. It was so natural and spontaneous that the song obviously meant a lot to her, and she conveyed that connection to the audience.   

She enthusiastically revealed that she discovered her next song on television’s NCIS in the background of a scene and, hearing her own name in the lyrics, immediately decided to research it. From that happy accident came a buoyantly original take on “Hard Hearted Hannah (The Vamp of Savannah)” (Milton Ager, Jack Yellen, Bob Bigelow, Charles Bates) that translated the sheer joy of finding the song into a crowd-pleasing moment. In her introduction to “The Peacocks (A Timeless Place)” (Jimmy Rowles, Norma Winstone), Carter mentioned how daunting the melody was to learn at first, giving a clue as to why, for the only time in the show, she seemed a bit out of her element—her struggle with the music weakened her connection with the words. It seemed forced and failed to allow the gentle beauty of the poetry to fly. I have no doubt she will master the piece with time.

With the classic “Body and Soul” (Johnny Green, Edward Heyman, Robert Sour, Frank Eyton), she quickly regained her footing and captured the strength and passion of the lyrics with an emotional heft beyond her years. The treat of the night for me was to hear Dory Previn’s lyrics to the gorgeous theme from “The Bad and the Beautiful” by David Raksin. This was a real rarity and Carter brought it back to pulsing, powerful, poetic life.  After a charming and chipper take on “Bluesette” (Toots Thielemans) that brought the story to life better than pretty much anyone I have ever heard sing it and made it impossible not to smile along with her, she closed with a beautifully measured, hypnotic “You Taught My Heart to Sing” (McCoy Tyner, Sammy Cahn). 

The evening did suffer from some presentation problems.  First, and most egregious, was the presence of a music stand with a binder of the songs directly in front of the singer for the duration. This was totally unnecessary and an irritating distraction.  The stage at Pangea is small to begin with, so trapping her behind the stand not only restricted relaxed movement but covered her up for the whole show. Her turning of pages at the end of each song (when the audience should be luxuriating in what we just heard) was another source of consternation. The band, as I said, was fantastic but there were too many extended solos. Perhaps the next time the set could start with an instrumental to let the audience get to know the trio before Carter makes her entrance.  Awkwardly, after her introduction and before singing a note, she stood there behind the music stand as Pugh began the number with a long (albeit impressive) solo that quashed the excitement of welcoming her to the stage. 

These are all fixable with a bit more thought and care. Hannah Carter’s debut was a night filled with promise and a showcase for a jazz artist already embracing her prodigious talent fully.  I have a note of personal thanks as well for her stillness during the instrumental breaks in her songs. I am so tired of singers gyrating lamely while the instrumentalists have their moment in the spotlight. 

Carter just stood still and listened or stayed in the narrative moment of the song.  This was a welcome return to classic concert stagecraft in a show that gave New York a stunning new star in the jazz constellation.  


Presented at Pangea, 178 Second Ave., NYC, on May 29, 2024.


About the Author

Gerry Geddes has conceived and directed a number of musical revues—including the Bistro- and MAC Award-winning "Monday in the Dark with George" and "Put On Your Saturday Suit-Words & Music by Jimmy Webb"—and directed many cabaret artists, including André De Shields, Helen Baldassare, Darius de Haas, and drag artist Julia Van Cartier. He directs "The David Drumgold Variety Show," currently in residence at Manhattan Movement & Arts Center, and has produced a number of recordings, including two Bistro-winning CDs. He’s taught vocal performance at The New School, NYU, and London’s Goldsmith’s College and continues to conduct private workshops and master classes. As a writer and critic, he has covered New York’s performing arts scene for over 40 years in both local and national publications; his lyrics have been sung by several cabaret and recording artists. Gerry is an artist in residence at Pangea, and a regular contributor to the podcast “Troubadours & Raconteurs.” He just completed a memoir of his life in NYC called “Didn’t I Ever Tell You This?”