THE VOICE, OVER a poor telephone line from Cleveland, Ohio, sounds faint, but it's still unmistakably Vanessa Rubin. This is a singer for whom the word 'sassy' could easily have been coined, and the relaxed but assured quality of those sinuous vocals comes across just as strongly when she talks. Girl Talk, as it happens, was the title of her last album, and a recording that made a lot of critics sit up and take notice. This was a reversal. Although Rubin has consistently had her share of good notices over the years - particularly for her live performances - her recorded work has often provoked grumbles that it had been too much of a mixed bag. The material she recorded early on in her career ranged from the standard repertoire to soul-pop tunes aimed at a broad audience, and some albums came dangerously close to getting her pigeonholed as 'smooth jazz'. In fact she belongs, and always has, in the company of singers of real substance such as Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Dinah Washington. Girl Talk, on the Telarc label, came much closer to doing her justice. A stellar cast of musicians was involved, including pianists Larry Wallis and Cedar Walton, trombonist Steve Davis and tenor saxophonists Eric Alexander and Javon Jackson. She also got to duet with the great Etta Jones on But Not For Me and Gee Baby, Ain't I Good For You, and it proved a balanced, effective pairing. Rubin also explored some of her Caribbean heritage - she was born in Cleveland but to parents of Trinidadian and Louisianan descent - with an endearingly naughty calypso, Sex Is A Misdemeanor (The More You Miss De Meaner You Get). We can probably expect to hear a few tunes from Girl Talk when she plays City Hall Concert Hall next week, but Rubin has already moved on, both as an artist and from her record company. 'It's the most recent album that I've done, but I'm working on another now that I will probably release independently. I think most record companies now are willing to put a lot of time and money into certain artists, because they are able to build them, but not so much into others. I have a couple of projects, which I want to keep under wraps for the moment, that I've wanted to do for myself for some time, so this is the best way to move forward,' she explains. Even if her record companies haven't always had that great an idea of her career's direction, Rubin herself always has. Music was part of her life from early childhood, and her eclectic taste in it was shaped by the sheer variety of what her parents and eight siblings listened to. She grew up loving soul and Motown, but also jazz, calypso and later reggae. She managed her first quartet as well as fronting it, and by the time she moved to New York more than 20 years ago she had already established a strong local following. Pulling up her roots and relocating to the Big Apple was a considerable risk, but Rubin was not going to miss her opportunity to take a bite of it. 'I have been based in New York since 1982. It's the best place to be for what I do, and of course it's a great city,' she says. For a jazz artist it's also a highly competitive city, so it speaks volumes for her talent that she quickly picked up gigs with Kenny Baron, George Coleman, the Mercer Ellington Orchestra, Lionel Hampton and Pharoah Sanders. She also studied with Barry Harris and Frank Foster, who was sufficiently impressed with her voice and attitude to give her a spot with his Loud Minority band. At the same time she was passing on what she had learned to students of her own. Rubin was recently recognised for 'Outstanding Services To Jazz Education' by the International Association of Jazz Educators, and says she regards an involvement in education of some kind as being part of any serious musician's professional responsibility. 'Teaching proved to be valuable in two ways,' she reflects. 'It provided a means to stay in New York, to be in the kind of environment I felt I needed to develop as a vocalist, and it uncovered a real passion I didn't know I had for helping troubled teenagers.' Her greatest passion, however, was still to sing, and in 1991 her recording career began in earnest with a contract with RCA Novus, leading to the albums Soul Eyes, Pastiche, I'm Glad There Is You, Vanessa Rubin Sings and New Horizons before she switched to Telarc with Language Of Love. She also made some notable guest appearances on CDs by Cecil Bridgewater, James Williams, Kenny Burrell and, on the principle that once in a while it's good to go home, the Cleveland Jazz All Stars. In recent years as well as appearing with her own groups she has toured with the Woody Herman Orchestra and Herbie Hancock. 'I did a tour with Herbie which was a different sort of focus, and of course to work with him was just wonderful,' she says. 'I've been lucky to be able to work with some great musicians.' One jazz great with whom she has a long standing association is the bebop pioneer, tenor and alto saxophonist and flautist, James Moody. She has already appeared here once with Moody and her old friend, the pianist and doyen of Singapore jazz, Jeremy Monteiro. She liked Hong Kong the first time around, and is looking forward to returning. 'I'm coming over with four wonderful musicians, Aaron Graves on piano, Michael Hawkins on bass and Alvin Atkinson on drums. I'm not exactly sure what we'll do yet - it all depends on the mood I'm in at that particular time - but it will probably be a mixture of standards and originals, meaning things that I've written or that have been written by other musicians I've worked with,' she explains. Whatever tunes she settles on for this performance we can be sure that she will make them utterly her own. She also expects to be inspired simply by being here. 'I'm really looking forward to it. Hong Kong's a great place - you have everything there. In a way it's a lot like New York.' Vanessa Rubin appears at City Hall Concert Hall on Tuesday at 8pm. Tickets available from Urbtix at $350, $250 and $120, half price for people with disabilities, full-time students, and Comprehensive Social Security Assistance Recipients.