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‘A New Jazz Classic’

Potomac’s Julie Keim receives Grammy nomination for her CD of ‘30s and ‘40s pop classics.

Julie Keim and Gary Davison laugh when they’re asked if “Cry Me a River” and “Carmina Burana” have anything in common.

“Well ‘Carmina Burana’s a little scarier,” Keim said.

“They’re both a little suggestive. They have that in common,” added Davison.

Both songs are part of classically trained soprano Keim’s repertoire, though only the former appears on her CD “Only Yesterday” produced by Davison, her husband.

The album was released last summer and was recently nominated for three Grammy awards.

“[Keim] just has a real electricity — a personal magnetism and electricity when she performs,” said Stan Engebretson, artistic director of the National Philharmonic Chorale, for which Keim is a frequent soloist. Engebretson has also worked extensively with Eli Staples and Chris Gekker, who play on the album.

“The next thing to mention is her flexibility. She can do Bach and Beethoven and then turn around and do pop or jazz,” Engebretson said. “I expect to see her at the next major venue in the area.”

THE ALBUM IS A MARRIAGE of Keim’s classical training and the melodic pop songs of the 1930s and 40s.

Keim, joined by pianist Eli Staples, bassist Glenn Dewey and trumpet player Chris Gekker, sings earnest, intimate renditions of traditional pop songs like “The Nearness of You” by Hoagy Carmichael and George Gershwin’s “Summertime.”

“To me the popular music from that period is … a more vocal style. It lends itself to a more technical background. I felt like I was able to have something to bring with the training that I have,” Keim said. Singing more contemporary pop or Broadway music would require “pretty much forgetting any of my classical training,” Keim said.

“So rather than do that, I thought that this material is more in keeping with the training that I have and I [don't] have to try to pretend like I don’t have this classical training,” she said.

“She doesn’t come across like a classical singer trying to do this traditional pop,” Davison said. “Julie’s singing to me. … You leave [thinking], ‘This has been a real genuine honest rendition of a song.’ But because she’s got that classical training she can spin phrases longer than any pop singer could hope to ever accomplish.”

AS A CLASSICAL vocalist, Keim performs mostly Oratorio, operatic religious music popularized during the Baroque period. She has performed at the White House, the National Cathedral and the Kennedy Center.

She’s also a regular soloist closer to home: at St. Francis Episcopal Church in Potomac, where Davison is the organist and choirmaster.

“Only Yesterday” grew out of a “music at eventide” performance at St. Francis in 2002. Following an evening service during Lent, the parish gathers for a casual supper and musical program. “It’s a way of just sort of relaxing and letting down our hair a little bit before we move on in to Holy Week leading into Easter,” Davison said. Davison had tried to put together diverse programs for the event each year, and in ‘02 Staples, Gekker, and Keim did a short program of traditional pop.

“It was wonderful. People just ate it up,” Davison said. “The folks who remember this music, of course it meant a lot to them and younger folks who were here and hear this music done really well just get turned on by it.” That summer, the group performed a full-length show, and did another show the summer of 2003.

People enjoyed it so much, he and Keim booked studio time shortly thereafter to make the CD.

The group spent about a week laying down the raw tracks at Bias Studios in Springfield, Va. The tracks are all “live studio” recordings where all four musicians are playing together, unlike many contemporary albums where each instrument is recorded separately and then layered in production.

In the studio, Davison and the musicians worked with recording engineer Bob Dawson and mastering engineer Charlie Pilzer, who have worked with artists like Mary Chapin Carpenter and the Dave Matthews Band.

Usually, the group did about five takes and then chose among them, although in some cases they did fewer. “Cry Me a River” required only one take — the recording went straight to the CD.

The musicians, who have jazz backgrounds, enjoyed improvising various aspects of the songs. “The great thing about doing this with little rehearsal is you get genuine spontaneity,” Davison said.

Toying with the material was nothing new to Keim either.

“The standard form for a Baroque aria is part A and then part B which is a little bit different material and then you do the opening material again and it was just expected that you were going to embellish it and ornament it. That was the whole point of having to sit through this music again is to see what this person, what they’re going to be able to do with it,” she said.

“YOU’LL NOTICE THERE’S not a percussionist on the CD,” Davison said. “There were two considerations to that. One, well it’s just one less person you have to pay. But secondly, artistically we didn’t feel like we needed that. We wanted a much more intimate club sound. And I have to say I don’t miss it. And I don’t miss having paid for that either.”

Keim and Davison funded the project themselves, from the $5 a minute studio time to the pressing and packaging of the CDs. “If we can move all of our stock we actually might make a little bit. We were just really wanting to break even.”

The trial-and-error nature of the couple’s first recording effort made the news of their Grammy nominations all the more gratifying. The CD was nominated for the Best New Artist, Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album, and Best Engineered Album (Non-Classical) awards.

All richly deserved, said Engebretson. The album “is very worthy of the Grammy nomination because it’s a unique combination of colors,” Engebretson said. “You could really say that [the album] has the potential and also the strength of the performance to become a new jazz classic.”