Karina Denike has been singing and performing locally and beyond since she fronted the East Bay ska group Dance Hall Crashers in the 1990’s. Since then she has made a name for herself largely as a jazz singer. Her group, The Cottontails featuring legendary horn player Ralph Carney, appears monthly at the Riptide and frequently elsewhere, and she sings with The Bluebells as well. Her playful, utterly guileless delivery and her strong multi-octave voice seem tailor-made for the jazz songbook.

But Denike is also an accomplished songwriter, and for the last two years or so she has been performing a set of her own songs with an unusual combo of backing musicians: James Frazier on baritone guitar (tuned in between a bass and conventional guitar and played like both); Aaron Novik on bass clarinet; Michael McIntosh, also of The Cottontails, on piano; and Eric Garland on drums. Denike herself plays an antique-looking chord organ which, combined with the low strings and reeds, gives a smoky, mysterious tone to the overall sound.

This project puts Denike in the classic pop chanteuse mode, carving out a niche in the narrow space between the indie and traditional music scenes. Despite recent shows above the radar at places like Bottom of the Hill, her home base has been every second Sunday at the Rite Spot, as picturesque a venue as a chanteuse could want.

As if Ms. Denike did not offer enough vocal magic, she duets on many of her songs with Lily Taylor, a show-stopping singer in her own right who performs monthly here as well.

Ramshackle Romeos warmed up the house playing chestnuts like “Moon River,” and “In the Ghetto” on a Martin guitar and just about every unusual instrument you could imagine. Saw and Theramin were featured heavily.

[audio:https://www.thebaybridged.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/02-I-Never-Cared.mp3] Karina Denike – “I Never Cared”

Denike opened with “I Never Cared,” one of her many songs built on a foundation of classic 1930’s, blues-based Jazz. She is a naturally soulful performer, swaying and dancing, using her expressive face and her arms to underline her vocal delivery. But her singing, like her music, is perfectly balanced – her sense of pitch, volume, phrasing are formidable. It is a rare thrill to run into a performer who has such technique and such artistry.

She soon led the listeners into less defined musical territory. Denike’s songs combine a dizzying array of styles and influences: doo wop, early rock and soul, tin pan alley, cabaret, classic and contemporary singer songwriters. She distills everything into an organic, irresistable pop music. Some of her songs, especially those where Frazier plays riffs on the baritone, evoke plaintive contemporary music like Portishead, or a groovier soundtrack to “Twin Peaks.” Others could be Fats Waller. She delivers them all as a cohesive whole.

[audio:https://www.thebaybridged.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/03-Polkadots.mp3] Karina Denike – “Polkadots”

The high point of this particular night was a Czeck lullaby that Denike sang to her mother. As with everything she tackles, she made it beautiful and moving.

Denike and her crew are off to New York City to play three dates at the end of the month and plan to release an album of their material this summer. It is our good fortune that she remains in residence at a modest local venue (no cover!). Catch her next Rite Spot set on June 13th – while you can still get a seat.