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Jewish Journal

Orna’s Jazzy Ways

by Michael Aushenker

May 20, 1999 | 8:00 pm

Nocturnal in black, with an aura of cool magnified by her sexy South African accent, Orna sweeps through a set of jazz standards before a restaurant packed with twentysomething peers. Whether burning through "Fever" or coasting through "The Island" in Portuguese, the singer ensnares her dining audience in a hex that moves some up front to abandon their entrees to sing along and shake their hips.

"I enjoy giving to my audience," says Orna. "I enjoy being able to share my gift with them."

Her name is derived from the Hebrew word for "light," and her voice radiates heat. So it seems only natural that the jazz vocalist performs torch songs. Born Orna Shifren 28 years ago, the South African-raised chanteuse developed a penchant for Chopin and Gershwin from her piano-playing mother at an early age.

"A wonderful upbringing," Orna says of her Johannesburg days, when she'd participate in Purim musicals. "Very close Jewish community."

After graduating from the University of Witwatersrand in 1993, she enrolled at Boston's Berkelee College of Music.

"Being a film-scoring major is very specific, and you really have to eat, breathe and live film scoring. That's how I feel about jazz," says the doe-eyed blonde talent, who has since abandoned her cinema composing aspirations.

Before relocating to Los Angeles, Orna covered the northeastern seaboard's wedding/bar mitzvah circuit.

"I was like the Wedding Singer," she says with a nod to the Adam Sandler character. "[By the time] I moved out here...I couldn't bear to sing one more Madonna tune."

Orna is thankful for her current backup: ivory-tickler Tom Zink, bassist Larry Steen, and fellow South African, Kendall Kaye, pounding the skins. She recalls one nail-biting experience when a pianist, plagued with personal problems, deserted her mid-set. Instead of canceling, Orna nonchalantly quipped, "It seems like the piano player has been abducted by aliens," and valiantly pressed on with the show pianoless.

"Needless to say," she tells The Journal with characteristically chardonnay-dry wit, "I never booked him again."

Taking her cues from favorites Sting and Diana Krall, Orna is currently shopping around for a record deal, and hopes to forge a durable jazz career in the tradition of the legends of the field -- Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan. Now comfortable slinking around L.A.'s clubs, Orna is here to stay.

"I keep getting told by people that New York is better, but I'm not a big New York person," says the nonplused dinner-crowd diva. The East Village's loss is our gain.

Orna will perform at Lunaria in West Los Angeles on Thursday, May 27; McCormick & Schmicks in Beverly Hills on Saturday, May 29; Pointe 705 in Hermosa Beach on Saturday, June 5, and Friday, June 18; and the Bel Air Bay Club on Thursday, June 24.

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