Pick of the Week

Diva Delight

When Lisa Otey was a child, there was no question what her future career would be. At the age of 4, she was asked by her musician parents what instrument she would like to play. As Otey recalls, she wasn't asked if she wanted to play, but what she wanted to play.

Years later, as a UA student studying with jazz pianist Jeff Haskell, Otey's roommate asked what her future plans were. When Otey replied that she wanted to play the piano, her roommate asked what she would do if it didn't work out. "I have to play," said Otey. "That's all I know how to do."

Some 20 years later, Otey is still playing strong. With many CDs and awards under her belt, including several TAMMIES (including 1997 Musician of the Year), the 2000 Arizona Composer of the Year award and a 2001 Arizona Blues Hall of Fame induction, Otey shows no signs of slowing down. Her independent record label, Owl's Nest Productions, celebrated its 10-year anniversary in 2004.

About six years ago, Otey was asked by artistic director Susan Claassen to perform at Invisible Theatre's Sizzling Summer Sounds series. Claassen wanted to tribute favorite divas. Otey invited local female performers to join her, and Claassen named them the Desert Divas.

Today's Divas are a different crew from the original lineup. They are: Hurricane Carla (Carla Brownlee), Anna Warr, Diane Van Deurzen, Regina "The Queen" Wills, Liz McMahon and Otey. (Member Kathleen Williamson moved to New York.)

For Otey, the group is a wish come true. "I was wanting to do a show with all women. It gave me that opportunity to showcase that area. ... When I had the idea to do this, Anna and Carla were the first ones on my list. ... It's a great showcase for everyone. They get an opportunity to be seen in a large group as this. Every person can carry the show. It's a group of headliners."

Hurricane Carla has been a member of Tony and the Torpedoes, Kings of Pleasure and the Carnivaleros (according to cdbaby.com). Besides wailing on her saxophone, Carla sings with "a classic '40s and '50s sound," says Otey. "She (produces) a powerful saxophone sound and has a voice like Peggy Lee."

Deemed "The Goddess of Love," Anna Warr has been a staple of the Tucson music scene for the past 20 years. "I got to watch her grow as a performer," says Otey. "She has (the audience) in the palm of her hand. She has a voice like Etta James."

Diane Van Deurzen has been helping Otey behind the scenes with the Divas for the past five years. After performing as a guest Diva, Van Deurzen officially joined the group last year. Otey and Van Deurzen have been singing together for the past six years at St. Francis in the Foothills. "I love singing with her," says Otey. "She has so much to offer."

Regina "The Queen" Wills also joined the Divas last year after performing as a guest Diva. She was introduced to Otey by friends. "She kept her talent quiet. Her friends said she had to let it out. (When I first heard her), she was just amazing. It's great to see her shine," says Otey.

Liz McMahon has left the group temporarily to star in Invisible Theatre's Cookin' With Gus. She'll be back with the Divas later this year. "We will miss her this time," says Otey. "We wish her a great run."

The Desert Divas perform "a fun mixture of songs," explains Otey. "It's all about embracing the diva within. The songs are positive and affirming. We don't have a lot of songs about heartache."

A performance is likely to include the group's original songs, plus popular songs with blues, pop, rock and R&B styles. The singers put their own influence into each song with diva-like interpretations. On their 2004 release, Viva la Diva!, there's a bluesy, soulful interpretation of '70s hit "Disco Inferno" that gets the audience hopping.

"It's always a high-energy show," says Otey. "We range in age from 35 to 50. It empowers women in the audience. Women our age think you have to be 20-something to do this. Women tell us how empowering it is. They realize there is no reason they can't do what they want to do."

Encouragement also extends to new singers. Otey likes to have special guest Divas perform, and oftentimes, one is a younger performer. Past performers have been Elise Ackermann, daughter of Gaslight Theatre's musical director Linda Ackermann, and a young dance group from India.

Inspiring others seems to be something that Otey does naturally with her positive mindset. "In 20 years, if I thought I'd like to do something such as play at a bar, get invited to play at a festival or on a record ... it all happened. I know that if I put the thought out there, I know I can trust that the opportunity will come. You have to trust that things will be OK. When you put your dreams out there, they meet you half way."

Lisa Otey and the Desert Divas will perform a "Diva-Day Celebration" concert at 7 p.m., Saturday, May 13, at Berger Performing Arts Center, 1200 W. Speedway Blvd. Doors open at 6 p.m. Tickets are $20 at the door, $18 in advance, $15 for Tucson Jazz Society members, $10 for graduates and children 12 and younger. Tickets are available online at www.lisaotey.com, by calling 370-5912, or at the door.

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