Amid the preshow bustle at Temple’s Hilton Garden Inn last weekend, a striking woman with raven hair threaded her way through the musicians, sound techs and hotel staff. Approaching the raised bandstand, she carefully placed a glass vase with vibrant orange tulips on the stage, in front of the microphone stand.
The woman was the acclaimed singer Calabria Foti, and the flowers, historically symbolic of “energy, enthusiasm, desire and passion,” proved prophetic for the night’s musical offerings. Praised by artists that include Chris Botti and the great Johnny Mathis, Foti’s hip, lyrical performance only raised one question: With a voice like hers, why haven’t we heard of her before?
Fortunately for the audience, the Central Texas Jazz Society, producers of the evening — formally dubbed the fourth annual Jazz Party — heard Foti at 2013’s Temple College Jazz Festival and immediately knew “she would be perfect,” according to Larry Simonette, president of the nonprofit organization.
Sharing the stage with a quartet led by pianist Ben Irom, director of Jazz Studies at Temple College, Foti began her concert by singing an a cappella scat chorus for 12 bars. After the band joined in, the lyrics revealed Irving Berlin’s 1935 standard “Cheek To Cheek,” and the ballroom’s partygoers were enthralled by the singer’s rich, sultry voice.
The Los Angeles-based Foti’s vocal talents and classical violin proficiency keep her busy. She’s a regular at recording sessions; that’s her playing Lisa Simpson’s jazz violin tracks on Fox TV, and the virtuoso solo on the PBS series “Great Performances.” Her voice has been featured in major motion pictures — “Guess Who” being the latest — and she also coaches students at master classes, violin and vocal clinics.
Foti demonstrated an easy rapport with the audience, a thousand-watt smile and a relaxed, anti-diva attitude.
While echoes of Ella Fitzgerald were heard in Duke Ellington”s “In A Mellow Tone,” and Diana Krall’s alto richness informed Gershwin’s “’S Wonderful,” each song was clearly melded to Foti’s distinctive manner.
Jesse Ybarbo, a drummer from Temple, was exuberant: “I’m a jazz guy and I wouldn’t miss this for the world. It’s promoting jazz and raises money for scholarships, too.”
“This is great music,” said Janet Bogucki, “definitely a smash.”
Playing double bass onstage was Austin’s Richard Mikal, who had praise for Foti: “She’s very laid-back and easy to work with,” he said. “And she’s encouraging to the musicians.”
Couples moved to the front and danced as Foti spun graceful melodies and improvisations on her violin, surprising some in the house.
“You don’t hear that instrument play jazz very often,” said John Rivera, from Killeen, “but she is amazing on it.”
The one disappointment? No Foti CDs for the audience to purchase — all she brought were snapped up at Waco’s concert the night before.
And about those tulips — a gift from the Feb. 7 concert in Waco — Foti explained, “They are so beautiful, I just had to bring them with me tonight.”