After a successful Jazz Fest set, the Brooklyn-based singer returns to resume her love affair with New Orleans musicians.

Photo of Dayna Kurtz

During her set this year at Jazz Fest, Dayna Kurtz had a moment. It was the subtle difference between a band simply playing songs well and a band completely in the moment, but it was there. Writer John Swenson heard it in Kurtz's cover of Eddie Bo's "So Glad." I heard it about three songs in when John Gros joined the band on the Hammond B-3. One perfectly timed sweep across the keyboard fed the moment perfectly to Kurtz and she seized it. At that point, her set of lesser known R&B, blues and soul covers changed gears, and it would do so again with guitarist Robert Mache pushing Kurtz during a grinding cover of Fonda Wallace's rockabilly stomp, "Lou Lou Knows."

"I barely remember it, which is usually the sign of a good show," Kurtz says of the set. "You don't process it consciously while you're in it. I didn't have anybody film it. I don't have any record of it at all, but it felt great. I'd never played with a horn section before that day."

Kurtz returns to New Orleans tonight to play Chickie Wah Wah, and while she largely tours on her own, she makes a point of picking up musicians to join her when she plays New Orleans. Drummer Simon Lott was with her at Jazz Fest and at her recent New Orleans shows, and tonight she'll be joined by James Singleton on bass and Wayne Thompson on keyboards. "I know they must exist, but I haven't played with any shitty musicians in New Orleans," she says. "It's exciting. It makes the learning curve go on an upward trajectory to play with musicians who are really good, and I'm excited that I'm not beholden to any one band in New Orleans. In New York, if I play with other musicians I feel like I'm cheating on somebody sometimes. I have a hard time hiring another keyboard guy in New York unless my guy really can't make it. When I'm in New Orleans, I'm psyched. I want to play with everybody in town."

There was a time when picking up musicians on the road - even in New Orleans - would have been tougher. She started as a singer/songwriter, and the material required very specific arrangements. Drummers told her that her choruses were slightly faster than her verses, so she required musicians who knew the intricacies of her songs. In recent years, Kurtz has gravitated toward the sort of classic jazz, blues and R&B found on the two albums she released earlier this year, American Standard and Secret Canon, Vol. 1

"So much of the material is easier to pop in on, especially for a New Orleans musician," she says. "They know what it's supposed to sound like. You don't have to tell them anything."

Economic necessity forces Kurtz to pick her spots for band shows. These days she can tour with a band and come home breaking even or in the hole, or she can travel on her own and make it financially viable between club dates and house concerts. The choice makes sense, but it comes at an unfortunate time in her musical development. "I've finally relaxed enough to be come a good bandleader," she says. "I toured solo for so long that I developed some bad habits time-wise. Performing was so much about getting really deep inside my head that it was hard to share information. Bands backed me up and followed me around, musically. I had to get to a point where I could interact with the band as an equal and be there with them wherever it took us."

Kurtz traces the change in her music directly to the Ponderosa Stomp and her development as a cratedigger, scavenging second-hand stores for rare or obscure vinyl. The urge is not solely musical; she admits that she's also a yard sale person who has to buy stuff she sees that she really likes, particularly colanders. "If it's adorable and a colander, I'll buy it." Unlike the people who crawl over mounds of unworn clothes from the '70s built over a substrata of empty takeout containers and  cat carcasses on Hoarders, she gets stuff out of house too. She gives things away, has her own yard sales, and resells vinyl purchases that didn't pan out.

This tour takes her through the South, though, so she's shopping to New Orleans. "I get really excited if I see a vinyl bin in a vintage store," Kurtz says. "Every once in a while, you can really luck out at a yard sale." These days she's particularly into R&B artists who wrote their own material in the late 1950s and early '60s, as well as live albums by soul singers that were never reissued on CD. 

The downside of obsessively buying vinyl? Having more than you can hear. She still has a dozen or so records that she picked up recently that remain unheard. "I love the yard sale score pile," Kurtz says. "But I have to be in the right mood to go through it."