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Sonya Kitchell's jazzy stylings come alive in front of a crowd

WATERTOWN -- Between songs, Sonya Kitchell seems like so many girls her age: bashful and self-conscious, a grinning fount of half-baked thoughts and unfinished sentences. Then she starts singing, and the sheepish 17-year-old in jeans and sandals morphs into a seasoned musician: poised, nuanced, and completely in control of her voice and her songs.

Either Kitchell has grown exponentially in the year since she recorded ``Words Came Back to Me" or she's one of those artists who thrives on live performance, because Kitchell's debut collection of jazzy-pop originals (released in April) is a pale reflection of the music this gifted singer-songwriter is capable of making on stage.

With the support of a subtle and sophisticated young quartet, Kitchell turned the agreeable songs from her album into broader, bolder works. It's impossible to say whether she made a concerted decision to downplay her acoustic guitar -- which was virtually inaudible -- but it worked in her favor. Instead of the familiar sound of strumming, the set highlighted Garth Stevenson's bowed bass and Miro Sprague's gloriously liquid piano parts. On ``Too Beautiful," John Shannon supplied harmonies with both his voice and his electric guitar, and you had to use your eyes to know which was which. Later, Conor Meehan dropped his sticks and played drums with his hands.

Kitchell's singing followed in kind -- dancing off the complicated textures, warmer and wilder than the breathy style she relies on in her recordings. Toward the end of ``Words," she sank into a simple, simmering scat as the band locked into a gauzy one-note jam. On her torch song ``Can't Get You Out of My Mind," Kitchell sang the blues with the sort of coiled soul that eludes vocalists many times her age.

For all her preternatural talents, however, Kitchell has her limits. Among the several new songs she performed were a couple that ventured into rock 'n' roll territory, where Kitchell's licks turned strident and screechy. Far more promising was ``The Place" a painterly ballad full of long phrases and abstract changes that blossomed into something very near an art song.

Joan Anderman can be reached at

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