Dayna Kurtz is wildly popular in Europe but fairly obscure in her own country. The same quality that makes her exotic to Europeans may be what causes her to slip below the radar in America: she so thoroughly embodies the styles that she sings, from jazz to country to R&B, that she might as well be some figment of our collective unconscious, a chameleonic Americana spirit.
It’s not as though she is incapable of standing out. Kurtz has a rich, androgynous voice that invites comparisons to Nina Simone. She has shared the stage with such luminaries as Elvis Costello, Richard Thompson, B.B. King, and The Blind Boys of Alabama. Norah Jones and Bonnie Raitt have sung her praises.
The Brooklyn native has been making albums since 1997, and in 2012 she released a pair of strikingly different records: Secret Canon Vol. 1, a selection of obscure jazz and R&B songs from the ‘50s and ‘60s, and American Standard, a collection of originals and covers that run the gamut from rockabilly to honky-tonk.
Secret Canon Vol. 1 is all slithering bass lines and twinkling piano flourishes, with Kurtz’s voice mixed large and close, a smoky-voiced chanteuse from a bygone era. She sings about rejection and heartbreak and fury that melts into gentle yearning. American Standard, by contrast, is soaked in heavy reverb and features shuffling two-steps and gutsy guitar solos. Kurtz is insolent and brash, a sharp-tongued diva relishing every wry turn-of-phrase, even when it is colored in regret. Taken together, the two albums showcase the singer’s vast range and the expansiveness of her character.
Kurtz is renowned for putting on an electrifying live show. Adept as she is at conveying raw emotion through recorded music, the real thing is even better. In an age of declining record sales, Kurtz knows what really matters: a shared experience with a live audience, no matter how small the room or distant the stage.