Kat Edmonson and Robert Ellis, who brought their tour to Annapolis Tuesday night, are Houston singers with the same final initial and current Brooklyn addresses. But they share something even more singular than that: They are both attempting the difficult feat of combining singer-songwriter folk and sophisticated jazz. Their efforts have yielded two of the best albums of 2014—Edmonson's "The Big Picture" and Ellis' "The Lights from the Chemical Plant"—and one of the best shows of early 2015.
Edmonson, a tiny woman in a pixie haircut, took the Rams Head stage in a red, spaghetti-strap dress. She has one of the most unusual voices in pop today: a very nasal, girlish soprano that always seems a bit sharp. Once you adjust to it, however, you realize that she has her peculiar instrument under masterful control and uses it to devastating effect. She also gives a first impression of being just another jazz chanteuse, like Jane Monheit or Diane Schuur, but Edmonson is far more ambitious than that.
That's because she writes most of her own material, and if her music has the syncopated finesse and harmonic surprise of jazz, her lyrics emphasize the personal revelation and twisted irony of writers like Rosanne Cash and Lucinda Williams more than the cocktail-hour sophistication of Irving Berlin and Cole Porter. And it's that collision of sensibilities that make Edmonson's music so fascinating.
When she sings about a part-time lover as a 'Rainy Day Woman,' she's not trying to be clever; she's digging into the hurt. When she sings about a long-distance relationship on the tumbling, rock-inflected 'Avion,' her aching need is unmistakable. Even her tribute to Roy Orbison, 'Cryin',' proves an elegy for a lost friend, an Orbison fan. All these songs bloomed on stage, thanks to Edmonson's emotional risk-taking and a strong backing band that featured Laura Scarborough on vibes and accordion.
Ellis opened the show as a duo with his longtime collaborator Kelly Doyle. Ellis is a Texas singer-songwriter in the Rodney Crowell/Steve Earle mode, radiating a genuine affection for his home state even as he skewers its contradictions. What makes Ellis a tangent from that tradition is his background in jazz, and that was even more obvious on stage than on the record, for Ellis and Doyle pushed their guitars out of Americana territory and into strange chord progressions and even stranger improvisations.
So when Ellis, wearing a trim beard and red suspenders over a white shirt, played 'Sing Along,' which evokes the dilemma of a young kid pressured to accept Bible Belt notions he doesn't quite believe, the guitars got quite woolly indeed. The dissonance in the harmonies reinforced the conflict in the kid's head.