Sydney Town Hall, July 6


I could hear that last, diaphanous note still hanging as we left her debut Australian concert; as we walked to the car. The song was The Way We Were, a spontaneous encore sung without the band, just against musical director Brian Nash’s piano and Michael Tyack’s synthetised strings, and that final note summed up much about why Jennifer Holliday is not just a good singer, but one on speaking terms with greatness.

She is blessed with a cathedral-sized voice, and many would have lived off that: blown the minds of the easily thrilled with magnitude and range, and thought it enough. Yet Holliday was wise enough to learn that however much people cheer high notes and held notes, there’s a stronger connection that eschews artificial ornamentation and feigned emotion. She just has to be true to herself to generate heart-stopping moments like that last one of the night.

Jennifer Holliday. Photos: John McRae.

Helping her cause is that because her voice is so big and her range – from her contralto’s opulent basement to her mezzo’s still-accessible and exquisitely restrained attic – is so wide, she never strains. It all seems effortless. Then there’s the phrasing, which first hit home on a two-song Aretha Franklin tribute (proving again she’s Aretha’s spiritual heir), and I Say a Little Prayer had her leaning so far back on the beat you almost expected the song to topple over. Then she ripped Respect apart, and the eight-piece Sydney Cabaret Festival band (which could seem a little prim and preoccupied with exactitude over energy) went with her, so her wailing dialogue with Mark Taylor’s tenor saxophone was testing the ceiling.

Beyond her twin homes in Broadway (including the beloved songs from Dreamgirls) and R&B, her God Bless the Child showed she also has the elasticity of a genuine jazz singer. But that all comes back to her ability to just be herself, regardless of song or idiom. By the bye, I went into this concert with a severe cold, and came out without one: no wild claims; just an observation.