Concert review: Funk legend Chaka Khan unleashes powerhouse vocals but without subtlety

The Singapore International Jazz Festival's second year opened on Thursday at Marina Bay Sands with a big bang, literally, with funk legend Chaka Khan.

But those in the audience who were there to relive Khan's heyday, with hits such as Ain't Nobody, Through The Fire and I'm Every Woman, had first to sit through two award presentations and a set by Cameroonian bassist Richard Bona.

The awardees were Singaporean chanteuse Melissa Tham, named the festival's Emerging Vocalist of the Year, and American improvisational whiz Ramsey Lewis.

Tham, a slip of a woman with big silky pipes, delighted the audience right after receiving her award with an exquisite croon, accompanied by Joseph Lepore on the double bass. Tham was best whenever she plumbed the deepest reaches of her swoony song.

That set the scene well for Bona, a bassist with a deft, delicate touch and wicked wit, and his four virtuosic bandmates - ATN Stadwijk on keyboards, Tatum Greenblatt (trumpet), Ludwig Afonso (drums) and Eli Menezes (guitar).

The quintet proved to be the evening's blessing in disguise. They were so cool and hung together so well that listening to them was like rolling about in a cloud. They were best on quiet numbers and, throughout most of their eight-song set, Bona chanted in Douala, a Cameroonian dialect. He got the audience to sing along with him, which it did with much delight.

But the band's break-out turns were even better. Stadwijk, in particular, was a masterclass in refinement and restraint, notably during his solo turn on the song Mut'esukudu, from Bona's 2013 album Bonafied. Stadwijk's precise inflections and lush chord changes were light as a feather yet laden with longing. Trumpeter Greenblatt complemented all that very well with his super-tight parps and squiggles of sound.

After a half-hour interval, Khan burst onto the stage with her band and British band Incognito. Skittish and gracious in her banter with the audience, she belted out a string of hits like the best of them - she has, after all, 10 Grammys to her name. This vocal powerhouse and her equally big-voiced back-up singers unleashed wall after wall of sound but, alas, with little depth and no subtlety.

Despite going so hard and heavy on the melodies, she showed glimpses of her greatness, but sometimes wobbled on notes high and low. Which all made the night seem longer than it already was.

When Khan took a break after seven songs, Incognito rocked the house, mostly with tracks from their latest album, Amplified Soul.

The diva then returned and dispensed with the evening with I'm Every Woman, ending it abruptly while most in the audience were up on their feet jiving.

The evening's compere, Anita Kapoor, had to prompt the crowd to call for an encore. Thankfully, Khan and her gang were out of the theatre by then, and so could not oblige.

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