Allegra Levy seems to be shooting for a franchise on heartbreak. For anybody who’s been blindsided – and let’s be honest, who hasn’t – she sings your life back to you.
She’s an anomaly in the vocal jazz world, a strong original songwriter who’d rather sing her own material than standards from decades ago. Her low-key, moody 2014 debut album Lonely City captured the downside of romance against a purist, trad backdrop. Her new album Cities Between Us – streaming at Spotify – swings harder and has more optimism, but there’s no evading the darkness in her writing.
Her lyrics are uncommonly smart, full of striking imagery and a pervasive angst. As all first-rate jazz vocalists do, she sings in character, word by word, line by line: you would think that other jazz singers would have a similarly meticulous, emotionally attuned approach, but unfortunately most of them don’t. You can tell that she’s listened to Sarah Vaughan – her low register is stronger here than on the debut album – and Ella Fitzgerald, but she doesn’t sound like either of them. Her distinctive, unadorned mezzo-soprano is on the soft and misty side. She’s playing the album release show tonight, April 8 at 7:30 PM at Club Bonafide on 52nd Street. The trains are as much of a mess this weekend as they’ve been in decades, but serendipitously, the 4 and 6 trains are running, meaning that if you’re on those lines or can get to them, you’ll have no problem getting to the show. Cover is $15.
Levy wears her heart on her sleeve. What do we know about her? She’s in her twenties, New York born and raised, very bright, and not shallow. Closeness and relationships are very important to her. She finally found one – in Hong Kong, during a long-running money gig. If the album is to be believed, she left the boyfriend behind, at least for awhile. But while this is a very personal album, it’s not couplecore -or singlecore, if such thing exists, ugh. Levy’s narrative transcends the backstory. Cherry Tree, the catchy midtempo swing tune that opens the album, sets the stage: its melodic allusions to Walking in a Winter Wonderland are apt.
Does your bark recall
Every time you had a scrape or fall?
…this winter blows my confidence
Colors faded and I lost my defense…
Tenor saxophonist Stephen Riley, bassist Jay Anderson and drummer Billy Drummond all get terse, low-key solos, which also sets the stage in the sense that this is a band effort rather than a singer with a backing unit.
Like Dorian Devins, Levy likes to pen her own lyrics to well-known jazz tunes. Carmen Staaf’s soft-soled, bar’s-about-to-close piano pairs with Levy’s tender, wounded delivery in her take of Duke Jordan’s Lullaby of the Orient: Levy really nails the surrealism of returning to Manhattan after being out of the country for awhile. Missing her boo, she heads down to Chinatown for solace: “Back home feels much too small, when I hear the whole world call.” The way she lets the song’s final line resonate, with just a tinge of vibrato, will give you chills.
Staaf’s lingering, broodingly modal chords contrast with Kirk Knuffke’s fluttering cornet and Riley’s balmy lines in another midtempo swing number, I Shouldn’t Tell You: “I shouldn’t lean so hard against you when I need someone else to care.”
The real classic here is the jaunty bolero-swing tune Misery Makes the Music, a jazz counterpart to Elisa Peimer’s similarly witty folk-rock tune, Good Song. Levy could always write a good song when she was disconsolate, but now she’s worried about losing her edge now that she’s happy: “What’s a song without some bite?” That perfectly capsulizes the appeal of her music.
Yesterdays has an insistent, upbeat swing and a lot of dynamics from Levy, from a handful of Vaughan-like dips and an enigmatically scatted solo with an unexpected joke snuck in toward the end. With its bright New Orleans-flavored horns, hints of late 90s downtown songwriter rock and suspenseful triplet groove, the uneasily hopeful Dear Friend is another smash: it wouldn’t be out of place in the Gretchen Parlato songbook.
The ballad Sleepwalk With Me, underscored by Anderson’s poignantly minimalist solo, paints a colorfully nocturnal portrait of separation anxiety – and it’s not all angst, either. If you listen closely the narrative includes a pillow fight. Levy does Dexter Gordon’s Soy Califa as a triumphant samba, contrasting with the withering breakup scenario Leaving Today, where the cad who’s dumping her can’t be coaxed out of his easy chair. The version of John McNeil’s Down Sunday is even darker, and the most evocative of Sarah Vaughan, Levy cursing the “worthless, rotten Sunday, glum day, hurts me like a love untrue..then Monday, I wake up the same way…” Riley’s shivery solo juxtaposes against Knuffke’s ebullient upward drive, mirroring how Levy weighs triumph against defeat.
The album winds up with the tropically-tinged title track, Levy’s images painting a picture of an imperiled long-distance relationships:
Cities between us
Will mock us and tease us
Airlines will taunt us and haunt us…
If there’s anybody alive to sing these songs fifty yeas from now, many of them will be part of the standard repertoire. In keeping with Levy’s ongoing city theme, maybe next time she can do an album about love in a time of repression, mass displacement and pathological greed and call it City Under Siege.
Svetlana and the Delancey Five Salute Ella and Satchmo and Put Their Own Sophisticated Stamp on Classic Swing
It figures that drummer Rob Garcia would grab the opportunity to kick off Svetlana & the Delancey Five‘s show at Lucille’s Friday night with a counterintuitive series of offbeats into a hi-de-ho intro, Mike Sailors’ spiraling trumpet solo rising to carnivalesque heights and foreshadowing a darkly lustrous, unselfconsciously erudite show. Why has swing jazz become so enormously popular again? Sure, you can dance to it, and many couples – as well as an exuberant, octogenarian tapdancer – were cutting a rug at this show. But swing is also escapist, and frontwoman Svetlana Shmulyian makes no secret that this is her her vehicle for finding solace and transcendence, and that everybody is welcome to get onboard. But what differentiates this band from the hundreds of others working territory that’s often been done to death over the years is that this group isn’t just a vehicle for vocals. In over four years together, this semi-revolving cast has built a cohesiveness, a camaraderie and a distinctively sophisticated sound largely unrivalled in their thriving demimonde.
For example, Blue Skies is a swing staple, but Shmulyian didn’t sing it as straight-up exuberance – and essentially warned the crowd that she wasn’t going to. And then made good on that, with an uncluttered, balmy optimism grounded in the sense that there definitely had been a storm before the calm. The rest of the program was thematic, a characteristically ambitious celebration of the sixtieth anniversary of the mid-50s Louis Armstrong/Ella Fitzgerald collaborations. A potential minefield, but Shmulyian and special guest trombonist/singer Wycliffe Gordon rose to that challenge, indomitably and with a deeply bluesy edge echoed throughout the band.
Pianist Ben Paterson spiced his purist riffs with the occasional gracefully adrenalizing neoromantic cascade, while Garcia delivered grooves that roamed far south of the border, as well as from Buddy Rich splash, to a more chill, vintage Harlem pulse. And his arrangement of the Beatles’ Because brought out every bit of angst in Paul McCartney’s moody ballad, reinvented as a darkly bristling tango. Bassist Scott Ritchie kept his changes purposeful and low-key, and was having more fun than simply walking the changes. Saxophonist Michael Hashin alternated between sailing soprano and dynamic yet terse leaps and bounds on tenor.
But it was the chemistry between Shmulyian and Gordon that hit the highest points of the night, whether his masterful and deceptively subtle plunger work, or his droll, tongue-in-cheek vocals and effortless shifts into falsetto, or the night’s most hilarious moment, at the end of a solo toward the end of the show. As obvious and vaudevillian as that was, Gordon waited patiently to make that moment as ridiculously amusing as it was. And the reliably dynamic, eclectic Shmulyian was pretty much jumping out of her shoes from the git-go, rising to the very top of her register, vibrato going full blast. Yet it was a simmering take of the midtempo ballad Under a Blanket of Blue that arguably carried the most impact.
Likewise, the best song of the night might well have been a brand-new Shmulyian original, a bittersweetly swaying, guardedly optimistic New York-centric ballad allowing for a flicker of hope in the face of omnipresent bad news. Although she also grinningly acknowledged the results of the Brexit referendum, drawing some pretty wild applause from throughout the club. Grounded in the here and now, Shmulyian and her band played a show to get lost in: not bad for somebody who grew up in Moscow spinning Ella Fitzgerald vinyl on her family’s turntable and arrived in New York without knowing a soul here. The band’s next New York gig is a free show on July 23 at 8 PM at the auditorium at Kingsborough Community College, 2001 Oriental Blvd. in Manhattan Beach; the closest train is the Q to Brighton Beach.
Erica Smith Brings Her Poignant, Spectacular Voice and Eclectically Shattering Songs to the East Village
Erica Smith is one of New York’s most distinctive and often harrowing voices in folk noir and Americana. But even in this city, Smith’s ability to shift effortlessly from style to style is pretty spectacular. In addition to performing her own music, she’s currently a member of both the Richard Thompson cover group the Shootout Band – in which she puts her own stamp on Linda Thompson’s vocals – and also the explosive gospel-rock band Lizzie and the Sinners. Smith can belt a blues ballad or deliver a plaintive Appalachian narrative with anyone. And she’s also a versatile jazz stylist. Her latest album, a jazz recording with her band the 99 Cent Dreams, is One for My Baby, streaming at Spotify. She’s got a gig coming up on an excellent twinbill at Hifi Bar on May 10 at 7:30 PM; similarly lyrical and somewhat sunnier Americana singer Rebecca Turner follows at around 8:30 PM.
There’s a tragic backstory here: as it turned out, this was the final recording by the great New York drummer Dave Campbell. Perhaps best known for his serpentine, turn-on-a-dime work with psychedelic rock band Love Camp 7, Campbell was also a terrific swing jazz player with a flair for Brazilian grooves, which comes across vividly on the more upbeat tunes here. This is a collection of counterintuitive versions of standards recorded with rock band instrumentation – electric guitar, bass, drums and Leif Arntzen’s soulful muted trumpet on two numbers – along with an obscure treasure by one of this era’s great lit-rock songwriters. It opens with The Very Thought of You, where Smith distinguishes her version from the famous Billie Holliday take with her inscrutable delivery, growing more playfully optimistic as she goes along. Guitarist Dann Baker (also of Love Camp 7) mashes up Barney Kessel and Wes Montgomery as he follows Smith’s emotional trajectory.
Interestingly, there are a couple of songs commonly associated with Sinatra here. Smith does I Could Write a Book as ebullient, optimistic swing: the song feels like it’s about jump out of its shoes, but Smith holds it in check over a slightly ahead-of-the-beat bassline And she does the title track a tad faster than the Ol’ Blue Eyes original, echoing the bartender’s desire to call it a night as much as the wee-hours angst of the lyrics, Baker with her every step of the way through an alternately woozy and vividly brooding interpretation.
She does Rodgers and Hart’s It Never Entered My Mind as lingering, noir-tinged torch jazz, Baker’s gracefully stately chordal ballet in tandem with Campbell’s tersely slinky 6/8 groove. Smith’s careful, minutely jeweled, woundedly expressive vocals mine every ounce of ironic, biting subtext in the lyrics. Ain’t Misbehavin’ gets a hushed low-key swing treatment that builds to coyly nonchalant optimism, Arntzen’s trumpet following suit.
Campbell’s artfully acrobatic tumble opens Everything I’ve Got as an altered bossa before the band swings it by the tail, Smith leading the group on a long upward trajectory that far outpaces the Blossom Dearie original. The album’s most shattering track is a desolate, rainswept take of Cry Me a River, Baker shifting Kessel’s lingering lines further into the shadows over Campbell’s low-key, sepulchrally minimalistic brushwork. The band does the first recorded version of Livia Hoffman’s Valentine as a slow swing tune: “What are childhood crushes for? For crushing all your dreams forevermore,” Smith intones in a knowing, wounded mezzo-soprano. The album winds up with a wryly good-naturedly suspenseful, rainforest-swing solo take of Campbell’s drums on Everything I’ve Got: just wait til the hip-hop nation finds out that this exists. Throughout the record, Smith’s disarmingly direct, imaginative, emotionally vivid phrasing breathes new life into songs that other singers sometimes phone in, reason alone to give this a spin if classic jazz is your thing.
Chanteuse Roberta Donnay’s album A Little Sugar Music, a salute to some of her favorite Prohibition-era singers, is just out from Motema. Donnay is one of Dan Hicks’ Lickettes, and it shows on this album – her affinity and aptitude for oldtime blues and swing matches the verve and sassiness of the originals, while she puts her own stamp on them. Behind her, the Prohibition Mob Band – pianist John R. Burr, bassist Sam Bevan, trumpeter Rich Armstrong, multi-reedman Sheldon Brown, drummer Michael Barsimanto and tuba player Ed Ivey – rise to the occasion.
Donnay is a sophisticated singer. Her nuanced, uncluttered vocals remind a lot of Chris Connor or Bliss Blood. Unlike much of the current crop of moldy fig swing sisters, Donnay gets inside the lyrics and draws them out: she’s interpreting rather than just trying to be brassy. Every song is different; every line resonates. To kick off the album, Oh Papa reaches all the way back to Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Donnay really digging in when she hits the line “you’ll regret the day you ever quit me” as Burr goes for terse James P. Johnson inflections. A late 30s Ida Cox jump blues, Swing and Sway, provides a blithe contrast.
Fats Waller’s I’ve Got a Feeling I’m Falling benefits from understatement everywhere: Burr’s moody piano, Wayne Wallace’s trombone and some wry vaudevillian flourishes from the drums. You Go to My Head is even more intense and pensive, from Burr’s brooding introduction through Donnay’s resigned, practically clenched-teeth interpretation. And Donnay outdoes Sippie Wallace at coyly nuanced signification with Mama’s Gone Goodbye, making it equal parts escape anthem and kiss-off ballad.
While the slyly theatrical One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show has the feel of a Mae West tune, it’s actually from the 50s; Donnay channels her inner flapper up to a nimble handoff from Armstrong’s trumpet to Brown’s tenor sax. The most sophisticated yet most terse number here is Irving Berlin’s Say It Isn’t So, Donnay’s low-key melismatics over allusive piano and a similarly minimalist but impactful bass solo.
Donnay’s jaunty, horn-fueled cover of Sugar Blues draws on Ella Fitzgerald, while the take of Tropical Heatwave here owes more to Ethel Waters than the infamous Marilyn Monroe version. Rocking Chair, which Donnay picked up from Hicks, gets an unexpectedly whispery, absolutely chilling arrangement, a vivid portrait of dissolution and despair. Her take on Sugar in My Bowl is more sultry come-on than risque party anthem, the balminess of Brown’s tenor matching the vocals. Of all the songs, the most interesting one here is You’ve Been a Gold Ol’ Wagon, an innunedo-packed, proto hokum blues song from the 1890s that brings to mind the Moonlighters. Donnay covers a lot of ground here and never once lapses into cliche, a feat more impressive than it sounds considering how many people have sung these songs over the decades. Fans of jazz, blues and steampunk sounds have a lot to enjoy here.
Eclectic chanteuse Catherine Russell’s new album Strictly Romancin’ may have been timed to a Valentine’s Day release, but it transcends anything that might imply. A Louis Armstrong homage of sorts (Russell’s multi-instrumentalist dad Luis played in Armstrong’s band), it’s a loosely thematic mix of brilliantly reinvented yet period-perfect swing and blues tunes, plus a gospel number featuring Russell’s 86-year-old mom’s powerful contralto harmonies. The album fuses many of the best ideas to come out of swing, soul and blues over the past hundred years. Russell has put out good albums before, but this is the New York-based vocalist’s greatest shining moment out of many. She’s always been a highly nuanced, versatile singer: she is an extraordinary one here, her eclecticism reaching new heights of sensitivity and sophistication, even beyond that of her excellent previous album Inside This Heart of Mine. Most of the A-list crew here played on that one: musical director Matt Munisteri on guitar and other fretted instruments; Mark Shane on piano; Lee Hudson on bass; Mark McClean on drums; Joey Barbato on accordion; Jon-Erik Kellso on trumpet; John Allred on trombone; and Dan Block and Andy Farber on reeds.
It’s also a great shining moment for Munisteri, possibly the most imaginative purist in jazz, someone whose immersion in the history of American roots music is deep but hardly reverential: he takes all these old songs and makes them sound as fresh and fun as they must have been when musicians first sank their teeth into them in the 30s and 40s. For example, the opening track, Under the Spell of the Blues takes its cue from the Ella Fitzgerald original, but adds a spring-loaded intensity with precise piano and Russell’s maple sugar, Bessie Smith-inspired vocals. If you’ve had enough of I’m in the Mood for Love for this lifetime and the next, you need to hear this version: Barbato and then Munisteri rescue it from schlock hell and transport it to swing heaven.
Cab Calloway’s Wake Up and Live is done as an refreshingly brusque, no-nonsense piano shuffle with Munisteri reaching for a rockabilly vibe – and it works perfectly. Ev’ntide, a rare Hoagy Carmichael tune is wee-hours dixieland, fueled by Kellso’s sly, souful wit. Lil Green’s Romance in the Dark, a slowly swaying blues ballad is the most overtly romantic tune here, followed by a jauntily sophisticated take on the Ellington/Strayhorn jump blues I’m Checking Out, Goom-bye. Abbey Lincoln’s No More gets the full-on, potently determined Nina Simone treatment, while Mary Lou Williams’ Satchel Mouth Baby (another Louis Armstrong tune) gives Russell the chance to show off her coy side; Munisteri’s deviously spiraling solo takes it to its logically adrenalized conclusion.
Everything’s Been Done Before looks back to the swinging Luis Russell/Louis Armstrong version, but takes it further south with Aaron Weinstein’s violin and Barbato’s accordion blissfully handing things over to Munisteri’s sly, googly-eyed shuffle. The most overtly bluesy, raw number here, Ivory Joe Hunter’s Don’t Leave Me has Munisteri channeling T-Bone Walker at his most suavely incisive. I Haven’t Change a Thing balances showtune bravado with blues soulfulness, with biting rhythmic tradeoffs to keep everybody guessing; it makes a good segue with the brisk Ellington tune Everybody Loves My Baby and its snazzy horn charts. The album winds up with a jauntily irresistible take of Red Allen’s Whatcha Gonna Do When There Ain’t No Swing, the most oldtimey cut here, banjo and band taking it doublespeed and back, again and again with a perfectly choreographed charm. A lot of people are going to love this album: jazz purists, kids who have just discovered oldtimey music, hardass blues fans and maybe even some of the crowd who gravitated to Norah Jones ten years ago when that singer reminded so-called mainstream audiences that jazz was once everybody’s music. The album is out now on Harmonia Mundi; Russell also did a characteristically brilliant live set on NPR which you can stream here. You’ll see this on lots of “best albums of 2012” lists this year.
As we really try to do every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Sunday’s album is #465:
Ella Fitzgerald – Twelve Nights in Hollywood
The “great American songbook” was the elevator music of its era – 99.99% of it is garbage. But when jazz musicians got ahold of it, magic could happen. This 2009 four-cd box set of previously unreleased 1961 and 1962 small club dates is notable for being Ella backed by a small combo – just understated piano, bass and drums – which gives her the advantage of not having to belt over the roar of a big band. So as with Sarah Vaughan (see #611 on this list), this gets the nod over the rest of her exhaustive catalog because she really gets to take it deep into the shadows. To be truthful, there is some schlock among the 77 tracks here, but there are also innumerable wee-hours gems, notably the original jazz and blues songs: Billie Holiday’s Lover Come Back to Me; Ellington’s Caravan and Squeeze Me; Ray Charles’ Hallelujah I Love Him So; Monk’s Round Midnight and Les Paul’s How High the Moon. There are also expansive versions of One for My Baby, The Lady Is a Tramp, Anything Goes, All of Me, Love For Sale (where she leaves no doubt that it’s about a hooker) and the famous moment where she decides to be a rock singer for thirty seconds before jumping back into Cole Porter’s Too Darn Hot. Here’s a random torrent.
The game plan was high-concept: to review two New York sirens at the absolute peak of their powers. But like so many high concepts it backfired, courtesy of a lack of contingency for late trains, and the fact that Amanda Thorpe had started her solo set on time and didn’t play for very long. At the end, she indulged the audience with a request, the title track to her new cd Songs from Union Square – which you’ll be reading about, very soon – and held the audience in the palm of her hand, as usual. She hadn’t rehearsed the song for this show, and when she came to the chorus, she stopped playing and did it a-capella. Just hearing that soaring, starkly emotional voice by itself made the whole ordeal of getting to the club worthwhile.
Keyboardist/singer Greta Gertler’s new band the Smallz (which may be a shortlived name, considering that Edmonton punks the Smalls are something of a legend in the Great White North) was next. Gertler – whose song Edible Restaurant, the title track to her new cd, was NPR’s song of the day last week – is nothing if not imaginative, and this unit is clearly her fun project. It gives her a chance to be as devious as she can be, which is extremely. Sharing the stage were Groove Collective bassist Jonathan Maron, who plays his instrument like a great lead guitarist, and multi-instrumentalist Rob DiPietro who doubled on drums and guitar, sometimes playing both at once, guitar in hand and foot on his kick pedal. Maron stole the show tonight with several solos, one which ran for about five minutes during an instrumental late in the set, filled with chords, bent notes and finally a searing, incisive run where he hit his octave and distortion pedals to perfectly recreate a guitar sound. From what they played tonight, DiPietro’s thing appears to be ruminative, slightly jazz-tinged pop songs (which he played on guitar). With tongue planted firmly in cheek and a frequent smirk on her face, Gertler was clearly reveling in the chance to go wild with her space echo effect and play some real funk, neither of which she gets to do much in her regular band, which has been off on a terrifically authentic oldtimey tangent lately. They closed with a delightful number driven by Gertler octaves which could have been a spot-on parody of early 80s synth new wave, or it could have been an actual hit from the era: imagine Kim Wilde’s Kids in America with some actual substance and a real long, psychedelic outro. Maron went up and down on his octave pedal for a siren effect at the end. Shows like this bring back fond memories of the days when there was a pot dealer on every corner of Avenue C, from Houston up to 14th. With this band, there was no need for drugs: they were the drug. Let’s hope they keep this unit together and find a name that sticks.
Add Dwight & Nicole to your list of must-see acts: if you like real, passionate, old-fashioned soul music that works on your mind as much as your heart, you owe it to yourself to discover them. The obvious comparison is Ike & Tina Turner, but beyond the fact that the duo is a brilliant guitarist and equally brilliant soul singer, it doesn’t go any further than that. Tastefully and subtly fingerpicking his Gibson Flying V guitar, Dwight Ritcher showed off his impeccable, purist feel for vintage soul and blues, which Nelson shares. With a voice like maple sugar, sweet but crystal clear, her subtle phrasing reveals her jazz background. Their myspace page likens them to Ella and Jimmy Rushing: it would be interesting to hear them dive into that repertoire (they have a Blue Note show coming up in the spring – why not?). Dimes to dollars they’ll nail it. Tonight they played an absolutely riveting set of mostly originals. Their best song of the night, Johnny Gets High – basically a one-chord vamp that sounded straight out of the Bill Withers songbook – slowly built tension until an explosion of gorgeous harmonies on the verse, chronicling the tribulations of a guy who wants to keep his life together but can’t resist the pipe, or the needle, or whatever it is he does. A little later they did a completely unselfconsciously romantic take on the old Slim Harpo classic Hip Shake, Ritcher’s nimble, walking bass contrasting with Nelson’s warm, summery Sunday afternoon vocals. Nelson’s tribute to her grandmother, an impatient soul who just wanted to get off Staten Island and get away, was a honeyed, straight-up pop song. They closed with another original that evoked Little Wing, Nelson crooning over Ritcher’s gentle, sparsely Hendrixian chordal work. The two were followed by Gary Wright, who thankfully didn’t do Dream Weaver (sorry, Gary, we know you hear this all the time). Of course, it wasn’t the Spooky Tooth guy: this Wright is infinitely better, a lefty guitarist who contributed tasty blues licks on a Dwight and Nicole song and later did a set of his own, solo, eventually running through a long cover of what is arguably Bob Marley’s best song, Burning and Looting, a spot-on critique of how the persecuted beat up on each other rather than taking out their frustrations on those who persecute them. Ritcher played piano on that one, revealing that roots reggae is possibly the only style of music he doesn’t know like the back of his hand. Dwight & Nicole will be at Banjo Jim’s starting around 9 every Thursday, giving them a chance to build up the fan base here that they so much deserve.