Rosie & the Riveters sing irrepressible, irresistible, original four-part-harmony swing tunes inspired by 30s girlgroups like the Andrews Sisters, spiced with equal parts jump blues, 18th century African-American gospel, and vintage soul music. Their vocal arrangements are packed with clever, amusing twists and turns. Likewise, their lyrics have a playfully retro charm. Their delightfully electic new album Good Clean Fun is streaming at Bandcamp. They’re making their New York debut at the small room at the Rockwood on August 11 at 8 PM.
The album’s opening track, Red Dress gets a gentle, coy intro and then a jaunty shuffle, fueled by piano, acoustic guitar and a.swinging rhythm section. Everybody in the band, each a strong solo artist in her own right, sings; Allyson Reigh takes the lead here, working every slinky angle in the blue notes, the band punching in with gospel harmonies on the chorus. All I Need, with its clever rhymes and blend of dixieland and Lake Street Dive blue-dyed soul, is a showcase for Alexis Normand’s pillowy delivery:
I don’t need a Strat guitar
I don’t need a limo car
I don’t smoke a fat cigar
To know I’ve found success…
And the list goes on. Likewise, A Million Little Things. roses out of a slow intro, into a cheery, resolute, accordion-driven bounce, Melissa Nygren’s wise, knowing vocals channeling optimism in the midst of everyday annoyances, the women in the band taking a droll round-robin midway through. The group take an unexpected and bristlingly successful turn into noir oldschool soul with Bad Man:“Behind that liar’s tongue are sharp,sharp teeth,” Farideh Olsen asserts. “Love won’t even find you in the grave.”
The band keeps a brooding minor-key groove going with the rustic, oldtime gospel-flavored Ain’t Gonna Bother, Reigh channeling a murderously simmering nuance. Honey Bee, a cha-cha, contrasts the tenderness of Nygren’s lead vocal with a spiky, biting undercurrent, fueled by moody clarinet. Hallelujah Baby follows a briskly scampering country gospel shuffle on the wings of banjo and steel guitar. Milk ‘N Honey is sort of the shadow image of that one, a bluesy minor-key number that brings to mind the Asylum Street Spankers.
With its “we don’t get out of here alive:” chorus, the stark, spare Go On Momma has a chilling mid-50s country gospel feel. The slinky, latin-flavored take of Dancing ‘Cause of My Joy, sung with a retro soul triumph by Normand, makes a striking contrast. The band returns to a darkly bluesy, banjo-infused atmosphere with the creepy global warming-era cautionary tale Watching the Water Rise. The album winds up with another period-perfect 1950s style gospel number, the gentle, resolutely sunny Yes It’s True. Pretty impressive for a quartet of gals from Saskatchewan. Sometimes if you come from outside of a musical idiom, you have to do it better than the original to earn your cred, and that’s exactly what Rosie & the Riveters do here.
Pat Irwin and Daria Grace Bring Their Brilliantly Eclectic Sounds to an Laid-Back Outdoor Show in Queens
The theory that Sunday or Monday are the new Saturday cuts both ways. On one hand, the transformation of hallowed downtown New York and Brooklyn neighborhoods into Jersey tourist trashpits on the weekend has driven some of the best New York talent to gigs and venues that might seen off the beaten path. On the other hand, for the permanent-tourist class whose parent guarantors have driven rents in Bushwick and elsewhere sky-high, every day is Saturday because nobody works for a living. OK, some of them are interns. But that’s a story for another time. For an afternoon that perfectly reflects the state of the city, 2016 and also features some of the city’s most eclectic talent, brilliant singer Daria Grace has put together a triplebill starting at around 4 PM on July 31 in the backyard at LIC Bar, with ex-B-52’s guitarist Pat Irwin playing his often hauntingly cinematic instrumentals, then a set by Norah Jones collaborator Sasha Dobson and finally a set by Grace’s charming uke swing band the Pre-War Ponies at around 6.. The venue is about a three-minute walk from the 21st St. station on the 7 train.
Last month’s installment of this same lineup was a treat. Grace did triple duty, first joining Irwin on keys (who knew that she was a more than competent organist?), then adding her signature counterintuitive, swinging, slinky basslines to a set by Dobson, then switching to uke and leading her own band. Irwin opened the afternoon with a set that touched on Bill Frisell pastoral jazz, Brian Eno ambience and most significantly, Angelo Badalamenti noir. He mixed slowly crescendoing, shifting instrumentals from his film work across the years with a couple of new numbers, one more minimalist and atmospheric, the other far darker and distantly menacing. By the time his roughly forty-five minutes onstage was over, he’d gone from solo to having a whole band behind him. Dobson followed with a set that drew on roughhewn 80s indie rock, switching from harmonium to Strat as she led her trio – Grace on a gorgeous vintage 1966 hollowbody Vox bass – through a mix of her solo material and a couple of jaunty Americana-flavored numbers from her Puss & Boots album with Norah Jones and bassist Catherine Popper.
It’s hard to find a window of time for sets by three bands; the last time this blog caught Grace leading the Pre-War Ponies was on a twisted but actually fantastic twinbill back in May at Barbes, opening for psychedelic Middle Eastern metal band Greek Judas (who are back at Barbes tomorrow night, the 28th, at 10). Grace’s not-so-secret weapon, J. Walter Hawkes is an incorrigible extrovert and a charismatic showman, but he really was on his game this time out, whether firing off lickety-split cascades on his uke or on his trombone, which he typically employs for both low-register amusement and purist oldschool swing and blues. A real force of nature up there, he spent the set blasting out droll vaudevillian licks, foghorn riffs and serioso latin lines.
Lately Grace has been doing a lot of gigs with iconic latin jazz drummer Willie Martinez, but this time out she had Russ Meissner behind the kit, who had a ball adding counterintuitive hits and accents to cha-cha jazz numbers like Amapola, from the band’s latest album Get Out Under the Moon. As expected, the big audience hit was Moon Over Brooklyn, which Grace delivered with so much genuine, unselfconscious affection for her adopted hometown that it was easy to forget that you could change the lyrics just a smidge and it would make a romantic anthem for any city, anywhere. Romantic songs are usually cheesy and rote and this was anything but. You can get some romance and some sun on the 31st in Long Island City.
What if you told your six-year-old that you were going to take them to a performance that was educational, multicultural, rhythmically challenging and completely G-rated? They’d probably tell you to get lost, right? Well, late yesterday morning the French Alliance staged a program that was all that…and the kids loved it.
French-Cameroonian duo Les Nubians – sisters Helene and Celia Faussart – celebrate sisterhood, unity and Africanness in ways that aren’t cliched, or annoyingly P.C., or patronizing. Their music is sophisticated, blending elements of American soul, central African folk, downtempo, funk, bossa nova and hip-hop, to name a few styles. And much as all these genres got a similarly multicultural, vividly New York crowd of kids and their parents dancing and swaying along, you wanna know what energized the kids the most? A detour into an ancient Cameroonian folk dance fueled by balafonist François Nnang’s gracefully kinetic flourishes, the crowd spontaneously clapping along with its offbeat triplet rhythm. Some things are so innately wholesome that kids automatically gravitate toward them, and the folks at the French Alliance are keenly aware of that.
Age groups quickly separated out: gradeschoolers and preschoolers down front, filling the first two rows, tapping out a rhythm along with the band onstage, singing and dancing along as their parents watched bemusedly from the back rows. The crowd was pretty much split down the middle genderwise, at least among the kids, boys just as swept up as the girls in the pulsing grooves and the Faussart sisters’ irrepressible good cheer, charisma and dance moves. Their parents got a 90s nostalgia fix via a playful, French-language remake of the Sade hit The Sweetest Taboo, along with songs like the pensive Demaind (Jazz) from the group’s 1998 debut album, and the spiky, catchy Makeda. Guitarist Masaharu Shimizu played eclectically and energietically over animated, globally fluent clip-clup percussion by Shaun Kell.
Les Nubians have a handle on what kids like. They worked a trajectory upward, enticing the kids to mimic their dance moves, getting some call-and-response going, up to a couple of well-received singalongs (employing some complex close harmonies rarely if ever heard in American pop music). The big hit of the day was the Afro Dance, Helene swinging her dreads around like a dervish. The show was briskly and smartly paced, holding everyone’s attention throughout just a bit more than forty-five minutes. Considering the venue, the sisters took turns addressing the crowd in both French and also in good English; Helene seems to be the main translator of the two. Their repartee with the children was direct and unselfconsciously affectionate – both women taking plenty of time to highfive all the kids down front to make sure that nobody was left out – but the two didn’t talk down to the children either.
Out of this blog’s posse, the hardest member to please is usually Annabel. She’s six – woops, make that six and a half. She spent most of the first half of the show occupied with some actually very sweet sisterly bonding with her friend Ava, age seven, whom she hadn’t seen in awhile. By the twenty-minute mark, both girls had run to the front, Annabel right up at the edge of the stage, transfixed. She got a highfive from Helene; meanwhile, Ava was getting a workout along with the rest of the dancers. What was most striking was that both girls could have been very blasé about this concert: neither is culturally deprived. But they both had a rousingly good time…and were ready for a big lunch afterward.
The French Alliance has all kinds of fun bilingual events and experiences for families on the weekend: this concert was just one example of how kids can get an exposure to cultures and languages they might not ordinarily encounter. As just one example, there are a whole bunch of free workshops for toddlers, preschoolers and their parents this coming Saturday, December 12 in the early afternoon.
Saturday night at Barbes the room was packed. Once Les Chauds Lapins began their set, it was literally impossible to get inside to see them playing their pillowy, bittersweet original arrangements of jazzy French pop songs from the 1930s and 40s. Like Les Sans Culottes, Les Chauds Lapins (literally, “The Hot Rabbits,” 30s French slang for “hot to trot”) occupy a significant slice of the demimonde of Americans playing French music. Over the years, hotshot guitarist/singer Meg Reichardt’s French accent has gotten pretty good. Co-leader Kurt Hoffmann distinguishes himself with his meticulously witty new arrangements as well as his agile clarinet playing. But in this band, both musicians play banjo ukes on most of the songs, this time backed by a swoony string section with bass, cello and viola. So these new versions are considerably different from the original piano-and-orchestra or musette-style recordings.
Les Chauds Lapins further distinguish themselves by performing a lot of relatively obscure material, not just the best-known hits by Piaf, Charles Trenet and so forth. The chirpy sound of the two ukes enhances the songs’ droll, deadpan wit: both Hoffman and Reichardt have a thing for bouncy romantic ballads about affairs that start out looking just grand but by the second verse or so have gone straight to hell. And Hoffman had the strings punching and diving and dancing with a verve to match the songs’ lyrics.
They opened with Vous Avez L’Eclat de la Rose (a free download), about a girl who smells like jasmine but may not be so sweet after all. A little later on they did one of their big crowd-pleasers, Le Fils de la Femme Poisson (The Fishwife’s Son): he’s in love with a circus freak, but if that doesn’t work out he’s always got a gig waiting for him playing accordion at a relative’s country whorehouse. Reichardt sang another surreal number from the point of view of a girl who gets trashed beyond belief early in the evening, hooks up in the bushes with some random guy and then starts to lose her buzz, realizing that she might have made a mistake. But, what the hell: “Let’s dance,” she tells him as she straightens her dress. Hoffman’s bubbly, precise clarinet added a cheery dixieland flavor; Reichardt, who’s a mean blues player, showed off her increasingly impressive jazz chops on one of the songs midway through the set. A lot of the material this time out was relatively new, at least for them, one of the most interesting numbers being a vocal version of Django Reinhardt’s Swing 33.
And most everybody listened through all the puns, and the innuendo, and the double entendres. OK, there was one gentrifier boy, or maybe not a boy, whatev, in the back of the room, hell-bent on impressing everyone within earshot with how blithe and fey he was, and he WOULDN’T SHUT UP. But nobody paid him any mind. People like that don’t usually go to Barbes anyway. Les Chauds Lapins will be there again on Valentine’s Day at 8.
Over the last few years, Tennessee songwriter Jennifer Niceley has distilled a distinctive blend of noir torch song, Americana, Nashville gothic, classic southern soul and blues. Her latest album, Birdlight, is streaming at Soundcloud. In recent years, the twang has dropped from Niceley’s voice, replaced by a smoky, artfully nuanced, jazzy delivery. The obvious comparison is Norah Jones, both vocally and songwise, although Niceley has more of an edge and a way with a lyrical turn of phrase. As with her previous releases, the new album features a first-class band: Jon Estes on guitars, keys and bass; Elizabeth Estes on violin; Evan Cobb on tenor sax; Steve Pardo on clarinet and Imer Santiago on trumpet, with Tommy Perkinsen and Dave Racine sharing the drum chair.
The album conjures a classy southern atmosphere: imagine yourself sipping a mint julep in the shade of a cottonwood, the sound of a muted trumpet wafting from across the creek, and you’re in the ballpark. The opening track, Nightbird, sets the stage, a nocturne with Niceley’s gently alluring delivery over a pillowy, hypnotic backdrop livened by samples of what sounds like somebody clumping around in the woods. The second number, Ghosts, is a balmy shuffle lit up by Estes’ deliciously slipsliding Memphis soul riffs, and picks up with a misty orchestral backdrop. .
Niceley sings New Orleans cult legend Bobby Charles’ Must Be in a Good Place Now with a hazy late-summer delivery over a nostalgic horn section and Estes’ keening steel guitar, and a little dixieland break over a verse. The Lynchian Julee Cruise atmospherics in Land I Love, from the swooshes and gentle booms from the drums and the lingering pedal steel, are absolutely gorgeous, Niceley brooding over her pastoral imagery and how that beauty “is never coming back.”
What Wild Is This switches gears for a lushly arranged, bossa-tinged groove; then Niceley switches up again with a gently swaying western swing cover of Jimmie Rodgers’ Hard Times. She keeps the jazzy-tinged atmosphere going with a restrained version of Tom Waits’ You Can Never Hold Back Spring.
But’s Niceley’s originals that are the real draw here, like Goodbye Kiss, a wistful lament that along with Land I Love is the most plaintive, affecting track here: “Unfinished visions keep hanging around like fog in the trees,” Niceley muses. The album’s title track is a brief inetrumental, Niceley’s elegant guitar fingerpicking against washes of violin and accordion. She winds it up with the hypnotic, surreal Strange Times, whose wary psychedelics wouldn’t be out of place on a Jenifer Jackson record. Lean back with a little bourbon and drift off to a place that time forgot with this one: what a great way to stay warm on a gloomy winter evening.
It’s hard to think of a more brilliantly chameleonic songwriter than Jenifer Jackson. She can switch from honktonk to bossa nova to oldschool soul to psychedelia and absolutely own all of those styles. Throughout her career – from the Beatlesque tropicalia of her first full=length album Slowly Bright, through her most previous, more mistily bucolic The Day Happiness Found Me – one constant has been how economically she writes. No wasted notes, no wasted words, always straightforward and direct with an unselfconsciousness that can be downright scary. The other constant is that she’s always had an amazing band. She did a long stretch in New York for about ten years, ending in the late zeros, before setting down new roots in Austin. The change did her good, inspiring her to follow the Americana muse that always seemed to be perched on her shoulder somewhere.
Her latest album, Texas Sunrise, is streaming at Bandcamp. Jackson opens it with the gently evocative title track, fingerpicking her guitar against the warmly wistful backdrop of Kullen Fuchs’ vibraphone and Chris Meitus’ mandolin, Tony Rogers’ cello adding a stark undercurrent. A Heart With a Mind of its Own goes deeper into 50s C&W, period-perfect down to the fluttery cello multitracks. By contrast, the album’s other vintage country tune, Sad Teardrops is a hard-hitting hard-honkytonk kiss-off anthem worthy of early Loretta Lynn. And Paint It Gold, a duet with co-writer Fuchs, takes the idiom forward twenty years to the early 70s proto-outlaw sounds of bands like the Flatlanders.
Jackson’s voice can be fetchingly poignant, as on the warily introspective ballad Easy to Live, or the evocative, balmy atmospherics of the nocturne When Evening Light Is Low. And her gently ambered, vibrato-tinged vocals on the dreamily regretful Ballad of Time Gone By will give you goosebumps. Yet her most nuanced and quietly impactful moments are actually on the more upbeat material here, particularly the Rosanne Cash-esque In Summer, a blend of Americana and the elegant pop tunesmithing of Jackson’s early days, lit up by Fuchs’ one-man horn section.
Similarly, the most energetic songs here are the real knockouts. All Around, with its windswept angst and desolate shoreline milieu, evokes Steve Wynn at his most haunting and wintry. Fuchs colors the uneasy Texas shuffle On My Mind with accordion washes and swirls and then a soaringly aching brass section. A Picture of May plunges more broodingly into southwestern gothic, a plaintively stately, bolero-tinged number. The most quietly devastating track here is White Medicine Cloud, a hypnotic, metaphorically bristling anthem with an understated antiwar message, Jackson painting a great plains tableau that’s genuinely touching.
On a more sobering note, over the past few weeks Jackson has been battling an injury that’s forced her to switch to piano. Although she’s a competent player, guitar is her main axe, and not being able to play it has thrown a wrench in her ability to just pack up and perform pretty much anywhere. She’s pretty tough, so the longterm prognosis is optimistic. But if there ever was a time to support this resolutely individualistic artist, now is it. You can pick up the album at Bandcamp or Jackson’s merch page.
Jeanne Marie Boes first came to the attention of this blog back in the zeros. Back then, she’d play the occasional gig at places like Tavern on the Green or some bistro in Queens. Why was this singer with the wise, knowing, fortysomething voice and songs that blended cabaret, mischievous blues and big oldfashioned rock anthems not doing more shows? There was a reason: turns out, she wasn’t in her forties. She was a teenager then.
Which was something of a shock. Among her three albums and numerous singles, there’s one where a family member tells her that she’s an old soul – and is she ever. She’s got brass in her upper register, a pillowy, dreamy quality in the lows and a soaring range. She sings conversationally, intimately: you feel like she’s in the room with you. You have to go back a long ways to find a comparison: Shirley Bassey without the camp, maybe. It’s an urbane voice, one that’s seen a lot in a short time and internalized it. And much as she’ll confidently channel whatever emotion she wants, she seems to like the subtle ones. As nuanced as she is now, if she keeps growing, in five years she’ll be terrifying. She’s playing the release show for her new single, Strangers, at the small room at the Rockwood on Dec 10 at 6 (six) PM, as good a room as any for a voice like hers.
As a tunesmith, she also looks back to an earlier era, yet her mix of Rat Pack orchestral pop, torch song, blues, cabaret and occasional stadium rock bombast is uniquely her own. She likes a clever turn of phrase, yet she’s down to earth at the same time. Like Harold Arlen – someone she resembles thematically if not really stylistically – she’s created her own niche.
The new single, recorded live at the Metropolitan Room, is streaming at Bandcamp along with the rest of her catalog. It’s a big, angst-fueled piano anthem, with a gothic tinge in the same vein as Kristin Hoffmann‘s darker material. And it’s a showcase for Boes’ powerful flights to the top of her register, ending with an unexpectedly jaunty blues phrase. Her albums are also worth a spin. Some of those tracks sound like demos, with drum samples and various keyboard textures substituting for a full band. Others have a directness that matches her voice; she doesn’t waste notes. Even if this is a solo show, it’ll be interesting to see how far she’s come in the time since she put out her first album in 2009.
Thursday night at Greenwich House Music School in the West Village marked the US debut of composer Marco Missinato‘s orchestral suite Unfolding Secrets: A Symphony of the Heart. For those who might see the title of the piece and assume “Hallmark Channel,” it’s not like that at all. Missinato has built as career as a film composer, and true to form, this is a suite of dreamy, cinematic soundscapes built on slowly unfolding, anthemic themes. Juilliard-trained soprano Kristin Hoffmann, who is best known as a purveyor of moody, soul-searching piano-based chamber pop, delivered mostly wordless vocals with both a stunning nuance and an unexpected power that took the piece to surprisingly forceful heights. That they played seven of the work’s thirteen movements out of sequence only added to the intrigue. Missinato wrote the score; Hoffmann wrote the vocal charts, and quite possibly improvised some of them: she can jam with anyone, which became even clearer at the end of the show.
Hoffmann and Missinato share a birthday, and they were celebrating that and the album release for this project together, Hoffmann backed by a chamber ensemble of pianist Assaf Gleizner, bassist Scott Collberg, cellist Alex Cox, violist Timothy Maufe and violinists Marielle Haubs and Caitlyn Lynch. This was an electroacoustic performance, with a backing track including the woodwinds, synthesized orchestration and occasional percussion missing from the group onstage, plus visuals shot by filmmaker Ashley Rogers (whose short documentary tracing the development of the collaboration between Missinato and Hoffmann was screened before the concert) .
A sweeping, slowly shifting main theme of sorts was followed by an optimistic, occasionally suspense-tinged interlude: “Come with me,” Hoffmann sang brightly, an open invitation. She aired out her lower register during a more dramatic, somewhat more anxious sequence. Hoffmann varied her approach considerably as the music unwound, sometimes with a bell-like clarity, other times with a carefully modulated vibrato that she unleashed for a pillowy touch and then pulled back in, and then back and forth, adding a welcome dynamic charge to Missinato’s soothingly enveloping, warmly major-key shades. A minor-key canon lit up by Gleizner’s judiciously minimialist upper righthand work introduced a brooding interlude closer in spirit to Hoffmann’s songwriting. And then the music slowly rose to practically operatic heights.
Hoffmann ended the concert with a trio of her own songs: Ghosts, a pensive but ultimately triumphant trip-hop contemplation of overcoming being haunted by the past; Temple, a slowly and passionately rising anthem, and Falling, a bracing but again triumphant exploration of having the courage to let go and take a plunge, emotionally speaking. Then most of the string section exited, leaving Hoffmann, a guest digeridoo player and the rhythm section to improvise what might have been the night’s most exciting number. Gleizner began with a simple variations on a, gleaming, saturnine riff as Collberg worked around a steady pulse, the digeridoo almost a loop, Hoffmann writing a wounded, angst-fueled anthem on the spot, a vivid portrait of alienation amidst chaos and the struggle to achieve some kind of balance despite it all.
Jody Redhage can frequently be found playing cello with many of New York’s more adventurous chamber ensembles when she’s not on the road with Esperanza Spalding. Redhage also happens to be a compelling and eclectic singer, and a first-rate tunesmith who’s as fluent with catchy pop/rock hooks as she is with elegant chamber pieces. Her 2011 solo album, Of Minutiae and Memory, built a lush atmosphere from overdubs and loops of cello and vocals. Her latest original project is Rose & the Nightingale, the name taken from a Rumi poem on which one of the tracks on the group’s debut album, Spirit of the Garden, is based. As the title implies, the atmosphere here is bright and vernal, a celebration of nature and the outdoors. It’s lively and entertaining, and the three-part vocal harmonies are imaginative and often breathtaking. Redhage is joined by Leala Cyr on vocals and trumpet, Sara Caswell on violin and Laila Biali on piano and vocals, with Ben Wittman on percussion and Redhage’s trombonist husband Alan Ferber guesting on a couple of tracks
The album’s first full-length cut, It’s So Beautiful, takes its inspiration from the water garden at London’s Barbican Center, blending trip-hop and chamber pop with a wickedly catchy chorus and a sinuous Caswell solo. Sky, Mountain, Stream turns a Ella Cvancara poem into a baroque-tinged pastorale with a lushly gorgeous rondo for the vocals. A tersely suspenseful cello intro opens up Butterfly – a setting of a poem by French poet Miquel Decor -which goes soaring and animated with bubbly piano over Redhage’s bassline.
Say I Am You sets the Rumi poem referenced in the album title to a Balkan-tinged choral melody. Where the Fish Are This Big is a brightly catchy, late-Beatlesque piano anthem, Caswell on mandolin, Evan Karp’s lyric inspired by the fish pond at San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers where the ensemble made their live debut last year.
I Write You a Love Poem, with a Maria Brady-Smith lyric, contrasts Redhage’s dancing cello riff against Biali’s brightly spacious, lyrical piano, Caswell’s solo adding a tinge of angst. The group goes back to Abbey Road for Rosa Maria, then vividly evokes a Vermont snowstorm via a Wyn Cooper poem with the slowly crescendoing Dissolve. Biali’s glistening, modally-tinged, bluesy solo is one of the album’s most enjoyable moments.
The Orchid Room, with lyrics by Silvi Alcivar, returns to a dancing, allusive trip-hop groove with another richly catchy but pensive chorus, pondering the transience of all living things. The album winds up with the dreamy lullaby Snow Peace Calms, with another Cvancara lyric, and then a muted, somewhat elegaic take of Mario Laginha’s Despedida (Farewell). The album also has four brief group improvisations, one for each of the seasons, more minimalistically atmospheric than Vivaldiesque. Like the Jason Seed Stringtet‘s album recently covered here, this album ought to resonate just as much with a rock audience as with the classical and avant garde crowds.
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.