A Saturday night in downtown San Diego, my friend and I head to the Westgate Hotel to hear Jonathan Karrant. It’s a windy night, and as I walk into the lobby of the Westgate, I’m struck by the odd sort of double throwback that is the Westgate. With the exterior of marble and the arches and the glass there is a strong sense of the seventies. I feel that I may have just come from a screening of the Godfather or Star Wars.
Walking inside there is another throwback, with the faux rococo interior. The throwbackiness is heightened when I see a man who is the spitting image of Phil Silvers, the guy who was Sergeant Bilko in the fifties. The guy even talks like Silvers, too!
But walking into the bar is another experience. Karrant is performing “I Thought About You,” the Van Heusen-Mercer classic, with a pianist and bassist. The setting and song are certainly from decades past, but there is something very contemporary about Karrant. As he and the band perform one standard after another — songs we all grew up with, songs from our parents’ and grandparents’ time — Karrant brings this music forward to today.
There is the obvious influence of Mel TormÃ© and Tony Bennett. Gifted with a great sense of time, his phrasing is reminiscent of Sinatra. And like Little Jimmy Scott, he’ll sing dangerously behind the beat. He has also incorporated elements of more soulful singers. I’m certain that his parents had more than one Ray Charles record that he got some vocal riffs from.
Meeting Karrant for coffee a couple weeks after seeing him at the Westgate he tells me, “I was really influenced by the music of World War II, Irving Berlin, and others from that era. My parents had a lot of Elvis records. And I love Elvis. I also grew up with Motown, Tony Bennett, and show tunes. Later on I dug deeper into jazz; I started listening to Mel TormÃ© and Carmen McCrea, I started listening to Coltrane. I also discovered Oscar Peterson, and Miles Davis.”
San Diego and many other places have recognized Karrant’s talents. This past year he traveled to New York five times to perform. He has sung for audiences throughout the rest of the United States and throughout Europe. His CD On and On charted to number four in All About Jazz, the worldwide online jazz resource.
Though he delves into modern material, the backbone of Karrant’s repertoire is the American Songbook, the hits, show tunes, and jazz standards from the time of Tin Pan Alley through the fifties. “I didn’t pick this music. This music picked me,” he says. He gathered his repertoire through autodidactic explorations. “I started reading more and more about jazz and singers. I found singers through iTunes and, of course, there is the Internet. I also discovered singers through compilation CDs. It was through a jazz compilation CD that I discovered Diana Krall.”
Karrant had something of an idyllic childhood, growing up in Fort Smith, a small town in Arkansas on the Oklahoma border. His father, a businessman, kept a 60-acre farm outside of town. Many of the young Karrant’s summer days were spent helping out on the farm or swimming or fishing in the fishing hole.
His mother was a dancer who taught for a local ballet company, and music and art were central to the family home. She claims that as an infant Jonathan would close his eyes and nod his head the way those hipster musicians do, convincing her that her son was destined to be a musician. He sang at church and at the age of seven made his club debut when he asked a nightclub band to accompany him on “Stormy Monday.” Karrant explains his precocious moxie by saying, “I was one of those annoying kids who always had to perform for the adults.”
Musicians who perform with Karrant will tell you that lyrics are just as important to Karrant as the tune is. Bass players and pianists suggest tunes to perform but are often turned down by the singer. His response to such requests usually includes the question, “Have you listened to the words?” If the lyrics are subpar or if they just don’t click, Karrant moves on to another tune. Among the songwriters or lyricists that Karrant particularly admires are Johnny Mercer and the husband and wife team of Alan and Marilyn Bergman. The Bergmans lyrics include those for “The Windmills of Your Mind” and “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life.”
Karrant likes to tailor his performances on the spot as the dynamics of an audience might change as a night progresses. “When I’m performing in a club or a casual, I go with the moment. I don’t make out a set list. Of course, if I’m performing for a show I make out a set list, but for a club date or casual I don’t do that. I like to see how the room is going and try to find a selection that fits,” he says.
Karrant has never shied away from adventure. At the age of 17, one week after graduating from his small high school in Arkansas, he moved to New York City. “I had never been there. Never seen the place, and I moved there right after I graduated, sight unseen.” He started an intensive study of acting at the William Esper Acting Studio and soon found himself performing character roles at the Metropolitan Opera. “The Met is so beautiful. And it was great for me to have that experience,” he says. “It’s amazing all the different people involved at the Met; there are people from all walks of life there.” One particular high point was sharing the stage with Luciano Pavorotti in a performance of Aida. While he was in New York Karrant studied singing as well as acting.
Karrant keeps current on his vocal studies, working with Seth Riggs in Los Angeles. Riggs is well known to prominent singers. Michael Jackson, Madonna, and a number of our most popular singers have worked with him. “You might describe his workout as being something like yoga for to vocal chords,” says Karrant. “As a singer, it’s also important how well you enunciate your words, and Seth works with you on that, too.”
We are now approaching the point that, if this profile were a full biography, we would be reaching the chapter titled “The Vegas Years.” Before moving to San Diego, Karrant lived there for a few years. But to get the full picture, let’s back up a bit. After two years of study and work in New York, Karrant returned to Arkansas. He performed with the jazz band at the local college. “While I was back in Arkansas, the instructors at the school kept telling me that I should move to Las Vegas; that was where there would be a lot of opportunities to sing and make music.”
Karrant took their advice and headed west to the home of crap tables, bright lights, and cheap buffets. And as with his move to New York, Karrant moved to Las Vegas sight unseen. He’d never been there before and knew little about the city.
He doesn’t really regret the move, but once there Karrant found out that his college instructors were not exactly right about the whole Vegas scene. “It was just not a very good time for me to have moved there. At the time they were closing a lot of show rooms,” he says. And the entire Las Vegas oeuvre was not something Karrant was meant for. “The place is too commercial. And there is this big thing there about Sinatra and the Rat Pack. They want you to recreate that image and that time, which is not what I’m all about. The venues there would not allow me to be an artist. I was never able to gather much of a following. And look how that compares to now. I’m less commercial, but I now have a bigger following.”
With his move to San Diego Karrant actually became familiar with our town before moving here, having visited friends here before making San Diego his new home. And his reaction is quite different as well. “What a great city!” he enthuses. After hearing a lot of musicians complain about San Diego it’s refreshing to hear Karrant’s fresh take on our town. “There are a lot of rooms where you can play here. And San Diego is more accepting of different things. People here are more open-minded.
“There are a lot of great musicians here. When I travel to other places I can have a hard time finding good musicians to work with. I never have that problem here. And KSDS Jazz 88.3 is really involved with the local music scene. That radio station is so supportive of the music in this city.”
For the next chapter in Karrant’s life he has a new album in the works that will be a mix of standard and new tunes, which he is recording in New York. And, unfortunately for San Diego, plans may include a move to Los Angeles or a move back to New York.
May performances for Karrant include Saturday nights at the Westgate. He is also going to be at Martinis Above Fourth on the 28th.