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Augustana Quartet to fill church with ballads, boogie

Singer Marilyn Keller has delighted audiences worldwide


Marilyn Keller, a strong mezzo-soprano singer, likes her ballads, but can get funky when needed.

“I’ve been a ballad singer from the beginning, but over the years I’ve developed a groovier side.”

That openness to expanding her musical palate has taken the veteran singer all over the planet. Keller sings jazz, gospel, r ‘n’ b, pop and blues, and has performed in Denmark, Sweden, Norway, the Netherlands, Spain, Australia, Great Britain and America. She and the Augustana Quartet will put on a show at St. Aidan Episcopal Church in Gresham on Sunday, March 3, as part of the church’s ongoing music series.

by: CONTRIBUTED PHOTO - Marilyn Keller studied music at Mt. Hood Community College and is one of the hardest working singers in the worldwide club jazz scene.

Keller’s voice can be heard on multiple recordings, movie soundtracks, commercials and documentaries, including the 2004 film “Little Black Book,” which features her and Rue de Blues singing the Lieber-Stoller tune “I’m a Woman.”

“It’s been my experience that wherever I go I seem to be placed there for a reason,” she says, adding she’s been in the music business for three decades. Among her more recent recordings is a gospel album with the Norwegian band Blue Horn, and she is among a number of Portland jazz musicians who contributed to “The Standard Vanderslice,” a collection of tunes by Ellen Vanderslice.

A New Mexico native, Keller grew up singing in church with her minister father and mother, an alto singer in the congregation’s choir. Keller was inspired to seek a professional career after listening to such artists as Chaka Khan, Ella Fitzgerald and Roberta Flack. Her formal vocal training included singing with the Mt. Hood Community College Vocal Jazz Ensemble and fronting the college’s Jazz Lab Band from 1979-81.

Keller can often be found singing in the long-running 6 p.m. Jazz Worship Service at Augustana Lutheran Church in Northeast Portland on Sundays. She also performs at the Heathman and Benson Hotels, as well as the Bistro Quartet, and has been heard at festivals throughout the Northwest. Over the years, she’s used the power of her pipes to enhance the music of The Don Latarski Group, Darrell Grant, Thara Memory, Tall Jazz, Tom Grant, Michael Allen Harrison, Disciples in Song and the Black Swan Classic Jazz Band.

by: CONTRIBUTED PHOTO - Marilyn Keller often sings in clubs, hotels and restaurants in the Portland area, as well as Augustana Lutheran Church, where she sings in the jazz worship service.

Along with Keller, the Augustana Quartet features George Mitchell on piano, Kevin Deitz on bass and Ron Steen on drums. She says Sunday’s show will feature contemporary gospel music infused with jazz, and notes the group will perform selections by James Taylor, Sting, the late Abbey Lincoln and pop-soul singer Rachelle Ferrell, whom Keller credits for inspiring her to step up her game.

“She has a four and half octave range and writes and creates for herself,” Keller says. “Her music is so emotionally stirring. She changed my outlook.”

After hearing Ferrell in the early 1990s, Keller says she began to see the singer’s voice an instrument equal to any played by a musician, rather than mere “icing on the cake,” and approaches her vocalizing accordingly.

“(Ferrell) uses her entire body as an instrument,” she says, noting Terelle inspired her in the same manner such singers as Al Jarreau did. “There’s some edges to my voice that I wasn’t exploring and that I began to explore. I’ve had some really great vocal instruction, and my range is extending.”

She adds that she and other Portland jazz singers are enjoying riding the tide of the jazz audience revival, led by such younger artists as bassist-singer Esperanza Spalding, for whom Keller’s brother-in-law Brian Ward has arranged songs. Jazz both locally and on the wider world stage is coming back, she says.

“We are getting some increased attention, and it’s very, very welcome."




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