CAMBRIDGE — “Tonight is a conversation,” the R&B singer Andra Day told a sold-out crowd a few songs into her headlining set at the Sinclair on Sunday night. “We’re talking in the form of music.” The Grammy-nominated singer, whose debut “Cheers to the Fall” came out last year, kept the evening’s conversation lively not just through her effervescent charisma, which helped power her show, but through her stirring take on soul music, which borrows from the past and present equally, with her crystal-clear voice tying together the eras.
Day’s voice brings to mind jazz greats like Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington — she knows how to use its power, even if that might comes from the way she holds back and allows her instrument to curl around the words she’s singing. “Rearview,” which Day performed with only piano accompaniment by her musical director, Charles Jones, provides a determined if wistful look at the emotions that bubble up after a breakup, given extra heft by Day’s perfectly pitched vocal. She’d previously stripped things down with a rousing cover of the early-2010s Kendrick Lamar track “No Make-Up (her Vice),” which she preceded by breaking out a pack of towelettes so she could perform the track without the assistance of cosmetics.
But Day’s undeniable talent provides a fulcrum for explorations into other genres — hip-hop, prog rock, gospel. Her able band was ready to follow her whims, giving the ultimatum “Hungry or Fire” a pleasant heaviness that was echoed in the arena-size, set-closing version of Queen’s “I Want It All”; the torrid cover of Nina Simone’s 1964 track “Mississippi Goddam” gave the night a political jolt, while the lingering glance “Goodbye Goodnight” brought to mind the Quiet Storm era. And the gently inspirational “Rise Up” turned into an opportunity for Day to lead the crowd in song; not only were its comforting “ooh, oohs” echoed by those who packed the Sinclair, Day brought a young audience member onstage for a run through its hope-filled chorus. The conversation Day led on Sunday went to unexpected places, but her masterful vocal command and unbridled musical curiosity make its future possibilities all the more intriguing.
With Conrad Sewell. At the Sinclair, March 20Maura Johnston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.