It was hard to feel sorry for Sophia Shorai on Thursday, the night she officially got cut from “American Idol.” While 24 other contestants advanced to Hollywood for the chance to have Jennifer Lopez cry for them and a shot at becoming the next David Cook or, um, what’s-her-name, Shorai played to a full house at her home town's top jazz club (the Dakota) with an MVP backing band that most local musicians would kill to have.
Her crew Thursday included former Prince sidemen Tommy Barbarella (keys) and Brian Gallagher (sax and flute), plus one-a-day drummer JT Bates (Fat Kid Wednesdays, Pines, Jah-hawks, etc.) and Berklee-trained bassist Cody McKinney. She issued a jazz-ballad album last year with Barbarella as her sole collaborator, titled “Long as You’re Living.” Coincidentally or not, Gallagher has been playing with “Idol” winner Taylor Hicks in recent years.
Shorai said offstage that she could not talk about "Idol," and she made no reference to the TV show onstage. She sported a red-streaked blonde bob ‘do that served as a reminder of how her “Idol” stint was actually taped a couple months ago. Not so coincidentally timed to the final episode of the pre-Hollywood (on air when she was onstage), her two sets showed the amount of versatility required of "Idol" contestants -- except instead of Bon Jovi and Britney Spears her repertoire ranged from the bossa-nova song "Quiet Night of Quiet Stars" and Nat King Cole’s "Baby Baby All the Time" to Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows” and Randy Newman's "Sail Away."
The more modern material came off best, especially “Everybody Knows,” in which she sprinkled a little grit over her undeniably elegant voice. One of the best tunes was actually a gorgeous original she played solo on piano at the end of the first set. In the second half, she put an interesting twist on Robert Johnson's "Hellhound on My Trail," which became a show piece for Barbarella and Gallagher. Jazz standards such as “Bye Bye Blackbird” and “S Wonderful”, on the other hand, felt a little too by-the-numbers and geriatric for such a young talent (she’s 28). Oh wait: I’m starting to sound like Randy Jackson. Blech.
Before singing "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime," Shorai thanked her mother for a lesson on the song's writer Yip Harburg (whom Mom heard a report about on "Democracy Now"). "Thanks, Mom, for making me sound smart," Shorai joked. When she introduced her band at the start of her second set, she said, “I’m a lucky girl.” No joke.