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Between Heaven and Earth

Nicole Yarling: It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing

After jamming throughout South Florida and a good part of the remaining world for almost 20 years, Nicole Yarling has certainly paid her dues by now. Her old band, Little Nicki and the Slicks, toured Europe eight times and was a South Florida club staple from the mid-'80s to the early '90s. After the Slicks disbanded, Yarling spent three years in Jimmy Buffett's band as both a backup singer and a featured soloist. Today she can be seen in a variety of local venues with her band, the Weld. Yes, the lady has paid her dues, but the investment has never brought her far-flung notoriety. If anything could bring the Deerfield Beach resident to the forefront of nationally recognized jazz vocalists, however, it just might be her recent endeavor with the late jazz great Joe Williams.

Williams, who worked with everyone from Coleman Hawkins and Lionel Hampton to Cannonball Adderley and Red Saunders, is best known for his role as vocalist with Count Basie and His Orchestra from 1954 to 1961. He left the Basie orchestra to start a successful solo career that lasted until his death on March 29, 1999. Williams' old-school class and tender baritone made him a revered figure in the jazz world. In his final years, he took Yarling under his venerable wing. By February 1998 the two had recorded a CD together, Joe Williams Presents Nicole Yarling Live at Manchester Craftsmen's Guild. He planned to tour with Nicole in support of the CD and expose her to a larger audience than she could get on her own.

Williams' death certainly threw the project for a loop. Interested observers thought it would be a blow to Yarling's career. Yarling, however, sees things differently. "People have come to me and said, 'Poor Nicki,'" she says with a feigned tone of sympathy. "I loved Joe for his talent, persona, and who he was. But I was an individual long before I met Joe; I believe in what I do just like he believed in what I do. Joe was going to be supportive and helpful, doing for me what Basie did for him, but I still think I have the talent and the wherewithal to pull it off. It's my ability that people will see, hear, and appreciate."

When Yarling speaks about what Basie did for Joe Williams, she is referring to Basie's act of kindness in 1961, shortly after Williams left the Basie orchestra with the good wishes of the ensemble's namesake. Unbeknownst to Williams, Basie arranged to have the marquee of Williams' first gig read: "Count Basie Presents Joe Williams." It was Basie's way to show his approval and help launch Williams' solo career at the same time. Yarling didn't know that Williams had planned to "present" her on a marquee in similar fashion until after he died. "A writer got up at the funeral and told the story," Yarling says. "No one ever told me about this -- that's how humble this man was -- and it was a blow. It was a big blow because I never got the opportunity to thank him."

Williams showed an interest in Yarling that he never had in other singers. But what was it that he found so attractive about her? Perhaps it was Yarling's lucid ability to make a song uniquely her own. Whether she's singing solo, scatting, alternating between violin and vocals, or harmonizing, she finds her way into a song, unearths and illuminates its every nuance. And it doesn't matter if she's recording with Williams or playing R&B gems in local venues, it's apparent that Yarling enjoys her work. She hits the stage with a warm grin and consistently turns out riveting, impassioned performances. She coolly bops and sways to the tunes. The smile rarely fades until she steps off the stage.

Williams was introduced to Yarling through John Levy, a jazz bassist who performed with the likes of Stuff Smith, the original George Shearing Quintet, and Billie Holiday. Levy hung up his bass in the early '60s to manage fellow musicians full-time. He handled Williams for more than 30 years and presently manages Yarling. Levy introduced Yarling to Williams in the mid-'90s through a demo tape Yarling had recorded informally in a friend's studio. Levy recalls Williams' reaction. "He said, 'Yeah, I like her sound. She doesn't sound like anybody else out there.' So I suggested getting something together where I could put her in a show with Joe." In 1996 Yarling met Williams at one of his shows in Tampa. They got to know each other, and Williams suggested that he and Levy should find a way to record Yarling. "As time went by," Levy says, "we finally got around to it."

Yarling says that her first meeting with Williams was "interesting…. He was cordial and very polite," she says warmly. "We got together for a performance, and he was introducing me, saying all these wonderful things about me to the crowd. So it was kind of surreal: Here's someone that I admired for years saying all these nice things about me." She adds that Williams "never treated me like I was a subordinate. You know when 'stars' have the attitude that you should be honored to be in their presence? He never had that, not once. He was the same exact man off stage as he was on stage. He was very warm and personal. He treated me like a peer, which was one of the things that I really admired about him."

No doubt it was predominantly Yarling's polished talent that enabled her to secure and pull off a live recording date with Williams. But beyond that a few prominent South Florida musicians were instrumental in bringing the CD to fruition. Recorded over two days in Pittsburgh's intimate Manchester Craftsmen's Guild, Live at Manchester Craftsmen's Guild features drummer John Yarling -- Nicole's husband of 18 years -- keyboardist Dave Siegel and bassist Jeff Grubbs. (Grubbs had relocated to Pittsburgh by the time the recording was made. He remains there as a member of that city's symphony orchestra.) Henry Johnson, a non-South Floridian who was Williams' long-time axman, also added his licks to the disc.

The CD is clearly a valuable keepsake, if only because it includes Williams' final four recordings. And even without Williams around to support the disc, it might still prove to be a considerable asset to Yarling's evolving career. Certainly it will be interesting to see if Live at Manchester Craftsmen's Guild has any impact on South Florida's jazz audience. The disc has a sophisticated feel and spotlights Yarling's abilities well. She scats, duets with Williams, performs original material, sprinkles in her violin, and of course masters the covers. During Yarling and the Weld's frequent regional gigs, however, they play mostly rootsy rock, soul, and blues covers -- material far different from the music on the disc. With covers of classics such as "That Old Black Magic," "Blame It on My Youth," and "Freedom Jazz Dance," Live at Manchester Craftsmen's Guild is geared toward an audience more discriminating than the local bar crowd.

"I wish I had a place to play the music on the disc," Yarling says. "There are a few places but very few, because people want to hear what's safe. A lot of the clubs in town that offer quote-unquote jazz don't want to hear that kind of music. But I choose to play my music my way. And opportunities will arise for me to do that. If they're not here in town, so be it. I will continue to play with the Weld and play music that I like, the way I think it should be played -- with great musicians. I'd rather do that than play something I really don't believe in, and that's part of the reason why I don't work in a lot of the places around town." She laughs, then adds, "I'm sure I'll do some shows in town to support the CD."

Whatever Live at Manchester Craftsmen's Guild does for Yarling's career, she feels the most valuable asset from the disc and her related association with a late jazz giant has already been acquired. "There's a tradition among French violinists to pass the instrument down," she says happily. "But in my particular case, it's more like I got the golden-voice award. The gauntlet was passed to me through Joe Williams to carry on the tradition of the jazz vocalist."


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