Vocalist Nicole Henry doing it ‘So Right’ at JAS Cafe

Andrew Travers
The Aspen Times
Jazz vocalist Nicole Henry will perform at the JAS Cafe on Jan. 2 and 3.
Courtesy photo |

If You Go …

Who: Nicole Henry

Where: JAS Cafe Downstairs at the Nittle Nell

When: Friday, Jan. 2 and Saturday, Jan. 3, 7 and 9:15 p.m.

Tickets and more info:

When jazz vocalist Nicole Henry made her debut in Aspen at the JAS Cafe in the summer of 2013, she was coming off the release of an album that found her in a ’70s soul state of mind.

The record, “So Good, So Right: Nicole Henry Live,” recorded at the Feinstein in New York, showcased Henry’s jazz-infused takes on the great voices of the 1970s, from Bill Withers to James Taylor and Fleetwood Mac.

When she returns for a two-night run this weekend at the JAS Cafe, with a four-piece jazz band in tow, local fans can expect some songs in the same vein alongside a wider jazz survey.

“It’s kind of a groovy show,” Henry said from Miami between rehearsals for the Aspen gigs. “We’ll do some jazz standards, and we reworked a couple of contemporary tunes, we have a few originals, and it’s just kind of groovy.”

She’s continued to mine ’70s singer-songwriter catalogs for material, she said.

“I found myself enjoying some of the funkier, groovier things from that time,” she said. “So I went and picked up a few more with that vibe and added them to my repertoire.”

In the decade since her debut album, “The Nearness of You,” Henry has become of jazz’s finest interpreters. With delivery that Jazz Aspen Snowmass founder Jim Horowitz describes as “soul-drenched,” a commanding stage presence and a thoughtful approach to phrasing, she can take classics from the American songbook — or less frequently covered numbers, like the ones on her ’70s album — and make them her own. In 2013, Henry won the Soul Train Award for best traditional jazz performance.

When choosing songs to interpret, she said, she starts by breaking down the lyrics and looking for a story to tell. Sometimes, that takes her in some unexpected directions. Recently, for example, she picked up the old 1930s showtune “Get Happy,” which has been covered over the decades by crooners from Frank Sinatra to Rufus Wainwright.

“Instead of making it more of a showtune, we give it a little soul,” she said, and took it in a sadder direction than most interpreters have.

Henry is also a songwriter in her own right. Her most recent single, “At This Moment,” was released in the fall, and Henry said she’s at work on a new album of originals.

A child of the ’80s, the Pennsylvania native grew up listening to Whitney Houston and also admiring singers such as Aretha Franklin and Patti LaBelle, for whom her aunt, Debbie Henry, has been a backup singer for decades.

In college, she studied architecture and then acting. And though she’d performed in talent shows and sung the National Anthem at events, Henry didn’t foresee a career in music until 1996, when a Florida DJ invited her to record some songs and play some parties and raves.

“My career found me,” she said. “It was that opportunity to sing in front of people and to sing more than one song in a row — because unless you’re in concert you only really sing one song — and entertain people that I didn’t know from Adam. That was when I was hooked.”

Henry has recorded without a label since her 2004 debut, releasing records independently. As she broke into the industry, the DIY movement and crowdfunding were taking hold, and she decided to handle the business side of her career herself. She’s stayed independent despite the national acclaim her work has earned.

“I never really made a huge effort to look for a record deal,” she said. “For my next album, we’ll probably make a go at it.”