SEPTEMBER 28, 2005 - REVIEW IN BURBANK LEADER AND GLENDALE NEWS PRESS by KATHERINE TOLFORD

 

JAMMIN’ WITH JAZZ…PIZZAZZ

 

Duo Jimmy Spencer and Karen Hernandez are hitting area clubs with their ballads, blues and all that jazz.

 

When Jimmy Spencer strolls onto the stage at Mr. B’s restaurant in Burbank impeccably dressed in a gray tailored suit, satin tie, handkerchief and silver cufflinks, he looks like a member of the Rat Pack.

 

But once the room fills with the sound of his rich, velvety baritone voice, it’s clear he sings with the intimacy of Nat King Cole.  Spencer is a versatile singer who courts his audience with sooth and gentle phrasing and a warm, vibrant delivery.

 

Karen Hernandez, his longtime pianist and musical partner, backs him on piano along with the other members who make up her trio, Lou Shoch (bass) and Jack LeCompte (drums) as they perform a mixture of finger-snapping jazz, blues and ballads at the restaurant every Thursday night.

 

Among the broad repertoire of standards they regularly cover are “All of Me,” “At Last” and “Once in Awhile.”

 

Spencer has also sung with numerous professional musicians, who have played with jazz greats such as Frank Sinatra and Dizzy Gillespie.  The Long Beach resident primarily considers himself a balladeer whose style is soft and easy.

 

“I’m protective of ballads,” said Spencer, who has also appeared in several TV movies.  “I stay as close to the original as I can.  I like to phrase it and tell a story.  I want to hear the pretty chord changes.”

 

J.A. Preston, who became a fan after seeing him perform 15 years ago, said Spencer’s confident stage presence makes him so appealing.  “Jimmy’s a storyteller,” Preston said.  “He makes contact with the audience.  That’s a craft.  A good ballad singer makes love to the audience and he’s a wonderful ballad singer.”

 

“That was nice,” Spencer purrs into the microphone after singing “Deed I Do,” before dedicating the next song “If You Ever Leave Me,” to one of the waitresses.  Such impromptu dedications are a frequent occurrence throughout the show.

 

After 40 years of working together, Spencer and Hernandez are so comfortable together, they work without a set list.  Spencer calls out his song of choice and Hernandez immediately begins playing.  She even knows what key Spencer will start a song in.

 

Marguaret Love, a vocalist who has worked with Hernandez since the 1980’s said her musical talent is inborn. “Karen can play anything from rock to jazz,” Love said.  “It’s all in her head.  She doesn’t need sheet music.”

 

The duo performs gigs together as well as on their own, Hernandez with her trio.  Hernandez, a Burbank resident, is sought-after pianist in jazz circles.  She performs several times a month at Jax Bar & Grill in Glendale.

 

She also contributed an original composition to “Pretty Woman,” the film starring Julia Roberts and played on the soundtrack of the film “The Fabulous Baker Boys.”  She likes playing a variety of genres from jazz and blues to Latin and gospel, but said playing with Spencer is her favorite gig.

 

“He’s got the sound that matches well with a jazz group behind him,” said Hernandez, who began playing the piano at 4 in her Utah church.  “He commands the audience.  He holds people’s attention. And he’s got a nice bluesy sound to his voice.”

 

The two met shortly after Hernandez moved to Los Angeles in the late 1960’s at a club in the Crenshaw district.  After hearing her play, Spencer asked Hernandez to do some arranging for him.  They’ve been inseparable ever since.  They’re close off stage and refer to each other as “brother and sister.”  Over the years, they’ve played virtually every jazz club in Los Angeles.  Hernandez even wrote a song, “Riverside Drive,” about the heyday of their favorite stomping grounds when there were half a dozen jazz clubs throughout the San Fernando Valley.

 

The song is featured on their newly released CD “Shades of Blue,” a collection of standards.  Hernandez wrote and recorded the song, which has a Latin feel to it, 15 years ago but Spencer is the first to sing and record the song with lyrics.

 

“Riverside” is a fast frenetic song about the joy of hearing live music.  Don Fraser, president of the California Boxing Hall of Fame, was so impressed with the duo’s onstage rapport when he first saw them three years ago that he hires them regularly to play corporate events.

 

“They cover for each other if one makes a mistake,” Fraser said, “Ksren knows every song he’s going to sing backward and forward.  They work in concert.  They blend together beautifully.”

 

Spencer said he hopes to translate some of that harmonious energy to the audience. “I like to make people feel good,” Spencer said.  “Life can be such a scramble.  I hope to make at least one person in the audience happy.  If one couple comes up to me and says they enjoyed the show, that’s my whole night right there.”