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Gravity-defying voice, career lift off

Spanning genres as string player, singer, songwriter

Guitar, ukulele, and charango work is central to the sound of Becca Stevens, the bandleader of a quartet. Guitar, ukulele, and charango work is central to the sound of Becca Stevens, the bandleader of a quartet. (Matthew Murphy)
By Andrew Gilbert
Globe Correspondent / July 17, 2011

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The first clue that “Weightless’’ isn’t an album by a typical jazz singer is that it’s credited to the Becca Stevens Band. The point isn’t just that Stevens is also an accomplished string player whose guitar, ukulele, and charango work is central to her sound. Identifying herself as a bandleader who’s part of an ensemble speaks to her singer-songwriter sensibility, albeit one steeped in the kind of improvisation and instrumental interplay usually found in well-honed jazz combos.

“I feel very connected to this specific group of guys,’’ says Stevens, 27, who performs Monday at Club Passim with her working quartet featuring bassist Chris Tordini, Liam Robinson on accordion and keyboards, and Jordan Perlson on drums and percussion. The musicians all contribute vocals, too, adding earthy textures to Stevens’s insouciantly gravity-defying soprano acrobatics.

“They’ve stuck with me, they’re dear friends, and we’ve developed a sound and approach in the way that we work through the music,’’ Stevens continues. “I’ll write a song and flesh everything out, the guitar and vocal parts. But they expressed the desire not to have any sheet music, so I never have to write anything out. They have all the music inside of them.’’

Whether or not Stevens is a jazz singer, the jazz world has been eager to embrace her. Peers like Kate McGarry and Kurt Elling have hailed her as one of the most original young vocalists on the scene, while heavyweight players like pianists Brad Mehldau and Taylor Eigsti, trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, and drummer Eric Harland have recruited her for projects. Whatever context she’s working in, Stevens makes a vivid and enduring first impression.

“The first time I saw Becca perform I was completely in awe of her voice and intensity, the level of emotion and intellect,’’ says vocalist Gretchen Parlato, who contributes to one track on “Weightless’’ and collaborates with Stevens in the a cappella trio Tillery with Rebecca Martin. “She’s a ridiculous singer and songwriter, and whether it’s in a rehearsal or performance I have a jaw-dropping, goose-bump reaction every time I hear her.’’

The release of “Weightless’’ last April on Sunnyside, a follow-up to her impressive self-produced 2008 debut “Tea Bye Sea,’’ has provided a similarly revelatory calling card for Stevens. In many circles she’s still best known as the lead singer for saxophonist Travis Sullivan’s big band Bjorkestra, a group she connected with as an undergrad at the New School.

A self-described Bjork obsessive, she was so blown away by the band that she made the entirely uncharacteristic move of approaching Sullivan after a performance to offer her services as a substitute singer. When the spot opened up, she quickly took over the role and made it her own, performing on the 2008 Koch release “Enjoy!’’

“I had this burning desire to sing that music,’’ Stevens says. “But it’s a difficult thing to approach that material and do it tastefully. Bjork’s such an icon. You don’t want to mimic her, but you don’t want to neglect her either.’’

While there’s an unmistakable Bjorkian current running through some of Stevens’s serpentine melodic lines, she claims folk, alt-pop, postbop, and European classical music as a birthright. Raised in Winston-Salem, N.C., she grew up in a family suffused with music and started performing with the family band, the Tune Mammals, at the age of 2. Led by her father, William Stevens, a composer specializing in sacred choral music, the Tune Mammals performed his playfully folky original songs for children. Her mother, Carolyn Dorff, is an operatically trained singer who has worked extensively in musical theater. At 10, Stevens starred with her in a yearlong Broadway touring production of “The Secret Garden.’’

“Music and art is something that’s very natural for me,’’ Stevens says. “My father would write with us in the room. I must have been 5 or 6 and I remember him writing the song I was going to sing solo on the second record, ‘Too Cute to Spank,’ the title track.’’

She studied classical guitar at North Carolina School of the Arts while singing standards at clubs around the region at night until she matriculated to the New School. Where singing jazz provided an edgy identity for her in high school, “going to jazz school takes all the rebelliousness out of it,’’ she notes.

As her fame grows, the question of what to call herself has become more pressing. With her Appalachian roots still very present in her music, Passim is a natural venue for her. But the last time she came through town, Stevens performed at Outpost 186, which also makes perfect sense.

“In the end my music is not jazz, it’s something else,’’ Stevens says. “But jazz covers a lot. The lines are very blurry, and it’s easier to live there.’’

Andrew Gilbert can be reached at jazzscribe@aol.com.

BECCA STEVENS BAND At: Club Passim, Monday, 8 p.m. Tickets: $10, $12. 617-492-7679, www.clubpassim.org