Morley: “If You’re Feeling Helpless”

Singing of pleasure and women of hope, the singer/songwriter Morley jazzes, sambas, and folks her way across the stage of Joe’s Pub in a sleek silver dress. Her generous spirit adds to the warm evening of song on a cold New York night.

Morley’s considerable talents project well in this venue.  Her voice is flexible and both her high and low registers are affecting. Her songwriting and singing are unique with echoes of Joni Mitchell and Tracy Chapman. Her writing when specific can be strong: “Unshackled” a new song she wrote about the practice of shackling pregnant prisoners in New York prisons is gripping. Her signature song, “Women of Hope,” is simple and direct in its imagery, especially with its references to protestor Aung San Suu Kyi’s  call to action: “If you’re feeling helpless, help someone.” Some of Morley’s songs have a tendency to be a bit too generic in their lyrical sentiments but on the other hand, Morley can also grab onto a resonant phrase like Sever the Ties and make something special of it. In her best work, she finds an image and dives deep.

As a composer, Morley takes risks, and you can hear her jazz influences. She also plays with standard pop form. She might begin with  a/b/a/b, but soon she’s taking flights in the middle up and down the universe before returning back to home base. Those twists and turns allow Morley to go deeper and wider, a bird’s eye view of the world.

The set was nicely shaped beginning with “Pleasure” (“I’m talking about spiritual pleasure, I’m talking about intellectual pleasure,” she teases as she seduces) backed by a strong band including Robin Macatangay on guitar. Her combo dwindles down to three then two then one as the evening becomes more intimate culminating in an Abbey Lincoln song, “Throw it Away,” followed by a new song called “Baldwin’s Wings” based on a James Baldwin essay. Other memorable songs included “Call on Me” and “A Life Fully Realized.” She rounded out the set by returning the band for a closing of “Love and Understanding” backed with a strong Latin beat. For the encore, she did an acoustic version of “Women of Hope” with the audience joining in on the refrain.

In the intro to one of her songs, Morley mentioned how the late choreographer Geoffrey Holder had said to her that art is this: you make a messy painting and then you find a way to make it beautiful.

Last night, Morley brought beauty along with love, spirit, and elegance to the evening.

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