Wed. June 6 / Sat. June 9
7 p.m. / 9 p.m.
102 N. Market St.
Around 3 p.m. on Saturday at this year's Charleston Food & Wine Festival, the densely-packed crowds in the tasting tent got an unexpected treat. Out of every speaker throughout the tent, an a cappella voice smoothly began to sing the familiar lyrics, "You give me fever/when you put your arms around me/fever all through the night," of the old jazz standard. Those in the vicinity of the young woman delivering her impromptu performance paused, their attention held fast.
Charleston-based performer Elise Testone, 23, was born to sing. There's typically an egg shaker or kazoo in her handbag, ready to accompany her amazingly adept voice whenever the mood or opportunity comes along to perform. Walking by a microphone at the Food & Wine Fest, she couldn't help but tap it to see if it was hot. It was, and for the next half hour people throughout the festival were talking about that voice.
When Testone was in first grade, her classmates pressured her into taking a solo in their farm song class performance. "I'd waddle up to the mic and sing this bluesy 'cock-a-doodle-do-do-do,'" she says. "I've still got the video."
In high school in her hometown of Kinnelon, New Jersey, Testone escaped to the acoustically perfect stairwells of her school, where the janitor often caught her singing to herself. He finally asked her to perform with him at the school talent show, where they floored the crowd with a version of Elvis' "Make the World Go Away."
At Coastal Carolina University, Testone majored in music with a focus in vocal performance. The multifaceted concerts she arranged utilizing backup singers, dancers, and an orchestra attracted hundreds of people and are still talked about in the school's music department. She collaborated with hip-hop artist Justin Smith, performing at events like Columbia's St. Patrick's Day celebration in Five Points before relocating to Charleston last fall.
Since her arrival in the Lowcountry, Testone has attracted a talented group of musicians. Prominent Charleston jazz players such as trumpet player Kevin Hackler and bassist Todd Urban regularly perform with her, as well as guitarist Dave Linaburg and keyboardist Gerald Gregory (both of Morimoto).
"When I play with Gerald and Dave it brings something out of me," says Testone. "It's already there, but it needs help. They embellish the things I want to say."
Because she normally performs at restaurants like Mercato and Chai's Lounge, diners often hear Testone for the first time without knowing who she is, and she regularly gets compliments from strangers. "It makes me feel the best when someone looks sincerely at me and just says, 'Thank you,'" she says. "It's just two words, but I know they get it, and that's who I'm doing this for. It feels great to affect someone in a positive way."
Although Testone sings a few originals here and there, most of her numbers are jazz standards or modern pieces by acts like Erykah Badu and Soulive. The heartfelt emphasis she puts into every note, jumping effortlessly between octaves, truly makes every word her own.
Testone's influences have left a positive mark on her style. Who would she choose if she could sing a song with any one performer, living or dead? "B.B. King. He's the only one who can sing one word and make me cry."
Elise Testone performs Wednesdays from 7-10 p.m. and Saturdays from 9 p.m. to midnight at Mercato throughout the month of June.