In development as a series of songs called “The Anima Project,” which she debuted in monthly house concerts in 2011, “Little Warrior” is a departure from Engelken’s well-received “Caravan,” a 2010 album she describes as “mainstream with a twist.”
In “Little Warrior,” the subject of two shows in Oakland this weekend, “The material is not standard fare. It’s not what you think of when you think of a jazz vocal album. I’m not singing ‘My Funny Valentine,’” says Engelken, who studied opera in college, where she developed techniques to preserve her three-octave range.
On “Little Warrior,” she shows all sides of her singing self, from the lows in the original tune “Housemate from Hell” to the highs in the title track, also original.
Engelken, who has been singing since she was a youngster in Kansas, the youngest of 13 children, also is a self-taught arranger.
Making “Little Warrior,” she says, “I used my subconscious as my creative guide. I didn’t work from laws of theory except when I got in a bind,” noting that its carefully selected songs — including covers of tunes by Tom Waits, The Cars, Joni Mitchell and a lyric version of Wayne Shorter’s “Undertow” — purposely go beyond “swinging in 4/4 time.”
Although she comes up with complex harmonies, Engelken’s arrangements start with a melody line (the melody is the “crux of a song”). She realizes artists sometimes can alienate audiences, trying to be too impressive or clever.
Yet she’s not about to stifle her own admittedly unique voice, and welcomes listener responses: “I’m all about engaging, rather than saying, ‘This stuff is too deep for you,’” she says.
Pointing out her take on the Abbey Lincoln song “Throw It Away,” she says, “People respond greatly to that song,” sharing intimacies and tears, and the same kind of catharsis she associates with it.
While she gladly accepted listener input in making the album, and conferred with saxophonist David Alt and trumpeter David Scott on some of the arrangements, the project is ultimately her own, and the result of a lot of solitary work: “People think music is just magical, that it happens in the air. Creation takes time,” she says.
Engelken, who hopes to tour next year after radio promotion for “Little Warrior” fully rolls out, is thrilled with early reviews of the CD, with one critic calling it “a pan sensual experience.” Describing her music as tactile and aural — what could be better than that? Engelken asks.
IF YOU GO
Where: Sound Room, 2147 Broadway, Oakland
When: 8 p.m. Saturday, 5 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: $20 to $25