Rich, Nuanced Vocals and Eclectic Songwriting from Jana Herzen
It’s easy to be cynical about Jana Herzen’s new album Passion of a Lonely Heart. For one, the idea of a label head (she runs Motema) putting out a record brings to mind things like Leonard Chess’ adventures behind the drum kit during a Muddy Waters session. And while at first glance it might seem that this is an attempt to cash in on the ever-increasing popularity of torchy oldtimey swing and Americana, Herzen is doing it in an original and richly captivating way. Hearing this album is like discovering Karrin Allyson for the first time: it’s eye-opening. Herzen’s songs ought to resonate with an audience as wide as Allyson’s, maybe Norah Jones’ – their sophistication will satisfy the most hardheaded folks in the jazz camp, yet her tunes are accessible enough to catch on with the pop crowd.
Lilke Allyson, Herzen’s songwriting is strong, as is her instrumental work (guitar is her axe). Her nuanced mezzo-soprano makes a perfect vehicle for a mix of jaunty, often deviously witty originals along with some choice covers. Her choice of instrumentation – just acoustic guitar and bass – pays off handsomely. While she cites the 1976 Ella Fitzgerald/Joe Pass collaboration Fitzgerald and Pass…Again as her main influence, the ambience here reaches back further than that to the classic Sarah Vaughan collaborations with guitarist Barney Kessel and bassist Joe Comfort, notably 1962’s Sarah +2.
Herzen doesn’t sound anything like Vaughan, though. Her gossamer, sometimes airy delivery is disarmingly down-to-earth and unadorned. Her inflections reflect the lyrics to the nth degree: she chooses her spots to swoop down to a seductive purr, sail with an unselfconscious joy and explore the territory in between. Bassist Charnett Moffett’s approach is methodically agile, adding warmly nocturnal colors without cluttering the spare arrangements.
The album opens with a coyly nuanced, understatedly sultry take of Henry Nemo’s ‘Tis Autumn, just bass and vocals. It’s a showcase for the kind of contrasts that Herzen can deliver, cutting loose with a carefree “beeline to the sound” and then with a simmering sensuality when she hits the point where “it’s just to help that old mercury climb.” An elegant oldtime swing tune, Bali Holiday evokes a Pacific island of the mind circa 1937, Moffett capping it off with a twinkling solo way up the fingerboard.
A poignantly intertwined guitar/bass intro kicks off the title track and then shifts to slow, pillowy swing, Herzen hitting a gently powerful crescendo as reverie shifts to sobering reality with a knowing bittersweetness. The duo follow that with an absolutely brilliant reinvention of Chick Corea’s Spain (I Remember), swinging from haunting, gothic-tinged angst to a flamencoesque romp, a style the duo revisit later with more sensuality on the bolero-inflected My Latin Love. Then on Earth’s Heart Beats, Herzen reaches back for a vintage soul vibe over syncopated What’s Going On guitar, Moffett playing a period-perfect tiptoe funk line undeneath.
Night Blooming Jasmine is a gracefully sad, dynamically charged ballad with distant Cape Verdean tinges, a style Herzen embraces with a moody cover of Cesaria Evora’s Sodade. Secrets are Safe With Me builds a gorgeously brooding noir cabaret atmosphere with elegantly precise, bluesy guitar. There’s also a summery take of Nina Simone’s My Baby Just Cares For Me, and Here With You, which blends carefree Afrobeat and Mexican folk sounds. Herzen covers an awful lot of ground here to create one of the most enjoyable and eclectic vocal albums in any style of music in recent months.
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