This 27-year-old, Boston Conservatory-trained native daughter has it all: the looks, the voice, the charisma and a backup group that bravely skews the notion of band-as-platform-for-singer. To warm up, pianist Greg Richter sings an obscure tune called "Meet the Frog." This early, Birdsall and drummer Tim Cameron and I are probably the youngest people in the room. When she takes the stage, her youth shows in her bubbly demeanor, but her voice is low and seasoned, like Sarah Vaughan's.
The band breaks into "'Til You Come Back to Me," a bouncy soul tune Aretha Franklin sang. Though you don't call anymore/I sit and wait in vain/I guess I'll rap on your door/Tap on your windowpane, Birdsall belts, smiling with pleasure. The audience is yammering loudly, but that doesn't stop the band from sliding into a quiet, simmering waltz-time cover of "Norwegian Wood" that features heady solos from Richter and jaw-droppingly good stand-up bass playing from Bob Bowman. During Bowman's solos, Birdsall often squats between the piano and the bass, bouncing like a kid while watching Bowman's powerful hands.
"Half the time, I'm more excited about what they're doing than what I'm doing," she says after the show.
It's brave for a young singer like Birdsall to work with such adventurous improvisers, and at first, they nearly upstage her. But by the end of the third song, "Love for Sale," which resolves with Birdsall singing an Oh, yeah that melts all the ice in my bourbon, it's clear who the star is.
And it only gets hotter from there. Her "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most" is heartbreaking; her "Miss Otis Regrets" is a festival; her "Wichita Lineman" is profound; her "Killing Me Softly" inspires dead quiet in the room; and her finale, "Let's Stay Together," has everyone singing along.
By the end of the last set, the crowd is about 30 years younger, making the night a rare experience in the old-guard-dominated local jazz scene.
I've made proclamations that Kansas City jazz is all but dead, but Birdsall deserves to stand on Kansas City's shoulders and represent us to the world. See what I mean when Birdsall sings every Thursday night at Café Trio or Saturday, July 8, at the Drum Room.