If you had to use one word to describe singer Nicole Kestler, it would have to be smokey. Since beginning her singing career as the vocalist for the Alan Gresik Swing Shift Orchestra, she has brought a new vitality to the standards. From this Big Band she was lured away to the Riff Rockets, a more intimate group that featured the singer. She currently plays a new role as the vocalist for the Rhythm Rockets - Chicago's premier jump blues band. All the time maintaining a solo career with her quartet. Her second CD 'High Standards' is the latest example of Nicole love's of the great American songwriters like Gershwin, Mercer, Porter, Berlin and Hoagy Carmichael. High Standards--Nicole Kestler (2003 CD--Skyscraper Souls Records)--is a vehicle for the under publicized, yet highly talented and appealing vocalist Kestler. On it, she shows off her impressive musical skills (not only as vocalist but as arranger as well) alongside some of Chicago's best musicians starting with the late iconic violinist Johnny Frigo, guitarist Alfonso Ponticelli, guitarist Joel Patterson, pianist Brian O'Hern, Jon Novi on sax, flute and clarinet, bassist Lou Marini and drummer Joe Adamik. Kestler has chosen songs wisely here, with heavy doses of Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer, both of whom she obviously possesses a true affinity for. Instinctively, Kestler allows these choices to flatter her while she is flattering them with interpretations that sound and feel correct and natural. Often described (quite correctly) as sultry and sexy, Kestler's vocals can give you all of that and yet still evoke a sense of optimistic youth. Highlights include Kestler's haunting arrangement of "Charade" (Mancini-Mercer), with Kestler getting terrific mood-setting support from O'Hern and Ponticelli, a big band-like effect on "Let Yourself Go" (Berlin), the saucy violin of Frigo on "San Fernando Valley" (Jenkins) and perhaps Kestler's defining moments on "Skylark" and "How Little We Know" (Carmichael-Mercer). Chicago Jazz Magazine A Trip Back in Time with Nicole Kestler Nicole Kestler is a talented and versatile Chicago vocalist who performs on a regular basis in several different musical styles. She sings as half of the pop/rock duo she formed with Chicago pianist/vocalist Professor John, and she also fronts a swing/blues dance band called the Rhythm Rockets, which appears frequently at venues like Green Dolphin Street. However, after having heard her terrific 2003 jazz album High Standards, I was especially eager to catch her on an occasion when she would be singing the kind of jazzy American Songbook classics featured on the CD. I made a point of catching her performance on Friday, September 25, at Katerina's Supper Club, with pianist Brian O'Hern, who accompanied her on High Standards as well. Born in Texas, and raised in Detroit, Kestler moved to Chicago in the early 1990s. Her first professional singing performance followed in the mid-nineties when she appeared with Alan Gresik's Swing Shift Orchestra at one of Chicagoland's many outdoor festivals. Before the decade ended, Kestler had begun her musical association with O'Hern that continues to the present. On stage, sitting on a stool next to the piano, Kestler began her performance with Irving Berlin's "Blue Skies." Accompanied enthusiastically by the vaudevillian music hall-like sound of O'Hern's piano, Kestler gave musical notice from the start that she was going to be using all of her abilities to transport the audience back to older, perhaps simpler times when this music was written. At first glance, one might be tempted to file Kestler among the cute "girl next door"-type of vocalists. But it doesn't take the listener long to understand that this "girl next door" has an edge to her. While making eye contact with as many members of the audience as possible during "Blue Skies," Kestler flashed a dazzling smile that, as the saying goes, lit up the room; except this particular smile lit the room with the imagery of dim, gently flickering "speakeasy" lighting reflecting off clouds of cigarette smoke generated by zoot-suited gents sipping bathtub gin at the bar. That smile was working some serious overtime as it set the mood for the rest of her performance and started her audience on an elegant time-machine journey to bygone days: a journey fueled by Kestler and O'Hern's focused performance and evocative song selection. Some of the evening's musical highlights included favorites like "Accentuate The Positive," which allowed Kestler to showcase her intelligent and at times, very witty phrasing. She sang the ballads "Skylark," "Where or When," and "The Nearness Of You" with a sexy lilt to her voice, and for these particular songs, O'Hern stepped away from his dance-hall-style to a more respectful and appropriately serious tone on piano. They took the same approach to the seldom-performed but beautiful ballad, "How Little We Know," from the movie The Big Sleep. Nicole Kestler is a young but polished musical artist who takes full advantage of vocal skill, nuance, and appearance to highlight the beauty of carefully selected jazz standards. Although highly evocative of earlier times, Kestler brings unbridled enthusiasm, freshness and charm (plus more than a little personal smoky, sexy magic) to the standards. Her ability to perform in other musical styles in no way diminishes her obvious respect for (and excellence in) performing songs from the Great American Songbook.