Joyce Lyons is the kind of singer who's as at home in a college classroom as she is in a dimly lit club where patrons sip Manhattans, squinting through the low-hanging haze of tobacco smoke to see the stage.
And if Fort Lewis College didn't have all those pesky rules about vice on campus, Lyons would have the chance to prove her mettle in both arenas this week.
But she'll come close, anyway.
Lyons returns to FLC for the third time as an artist in residence, and her gifts won't be reserved for the exclusive benefit of students in the music department. She'll teach a free master class for the most serious of students Thursday, and Friday the doors of Roshong Recital Hall will be open to all with a passion and appreciation for a great song sung by a great singer.
"The lyric is the most important thing. It's not how pretty you look or sound, but how you communicate the lyric," she said by phone Monday on the road in Minnesota.
Lyons teaches that message to students and audiences the way she was taught as a student at Colorado Women's College in the 1970s. Her teacher was Durango bon vivant and pianist extraordinaire Tom McCluskey, and that connection is what keeps bringing Lyons back to Durango from her Manhattan home.
"Durango's become my stomping grounds," Lyons said.
For Friday's concert, she'll be joined on stage by McCluskey's son, Chad, on guitar and bass, along with Lee Bartley on the piano. The trio (there may be an FLC student on the drums, but nothing's been decided) will break open the Great American Songbook for a cabaret-style show that could pass muster in any joint north of 110th Street save for the smoke and booze part.
Lyons will channel the likes of Peggy Lee and Billie Holiday singing jazz standards such as "Don't Explain," "How Long Has This Been Going On," "Speak Low" and "I Love Being Here with You." She said she'll hold her audience to the same high standard as she does her students, forcing those who listen to the timeless songs to hear the songwriters' words, not just the melodies.
"I ask them what the song's about, like 'Body and Soul," (which also is in her regular repertoire), she said.
"That song was a scandal when it came out, and if I can get them past that surface level and dig down deep to understand what the song means to the songwriter, it's really exciting when that happens," she said. "That's how I was taught. You're not always the best singer, but your job is to communicate that lyric, and if you do that you've done your job. Then whether you make five dollars or a million, you can go home happy."