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.
Sara Serpa and Andre Matos‘ latest album, All the Dreams – streaming in full at Sunnyside Records – is the great Lynchian record of 2016. For those who might not get that reference, the familiar David Lynch film noir soundtrack formula pairs a coolly enigmatic torch singer with a tersely atmospheric jazz band, and this one fits that description, but with a distinctive edge that transcends the Julee Cruise/Angelo Badelamenti prototype. The songs are short, arrangements terse and purposeful, tunes front and center, awash in atmospheric natural reverb. It’s this blog’s pick for best vocal jazz album of the year (check NPR this week for their final critics poll as well as the rest of the list). The two’s next gig is at Shapeshifter Lab on Dec 16 at around 8, backed by their her magically picturesque City Fragments Band with Sofia Rei and Aubrey Johnson on vocals, Erik Friedlander-on cello and Tyshawn Sorey on drums
While singer/pianist Serpa and guitarist/bassist Matos both come out of the New England Conservatory’s prestigious jazz program – Serpa being a protegee and collaborator of iconic noir jazz pianist Ran Blake – this album transcends genre. The opening theme, Calma – coyly reprised at the end of the album – sets the scene, Serpa’s signature, disarmingly direct, unadorned vocalese soaring over Matos’ spare, belltone guitar, drummer Billy Mintz’s steady shuffle beat and Pete Rende’s synthesized ambience. There’s plenty of irony in the angst and regret implied as Serpa reaches resolutely and confidentl for the rafters – yet with inescapable sadness lurking underneath. It’s easy to imagine the opening credits of the new Twin Peaks series floating overhead.
It’s hard to think of a guitarist in any style, especially jazz, who makes more masterful use of space than Matos: his melodies are minamlistic yet rich at the same time. That laser-like sense of melody – up to now, best represnted on his excellent 2012 trio album Lagarto – resonates in the purposefully circling jangle of A La Montagne as Serpa provides stairstepping, practically sung-spoken harmonies overhead. She sings the steady, starry, hypnotic Estado De Graça in her native Portuguese – it wouldn’t be out of place in the far pschedelic reaches of the Jenifer Jackson catalog.
Story of a Horse builds from a gently cantering Americana theme to uneasy big-sky cinematics: imagine Big Lazy with keys instead of guitar. The spare, intertwining piano/guitar melody of the tenderly crescendoing Programa echoes the misty elegance of Serpa’s earlier work
Matos’ bass and Serpa’s vocalese deliver a ballesque duet over enigmatic guitar jangle throughout Água; then the duo return to pensively twilit spaciousness with Nada, Serpa singing an Alvaro de Campos poem with calm assurance. The album’s most expansive track, Night is also its darkest, furtive bass paired with increasingly ominous guitar as Serpa plays Twin Peaks ingenue.
The lingering, wistful Hino comes across as hybrid of Badalementi and Bill Frisell in an especially thoughtful moment. Lisboa, a shout-out to the duo’s old stomping ground, begins with purposeful unease and expands to airier but similarly enigmatic territory, Serpa’s atmospherics over Matos’ spare phrasing and minimalist hand-drum percussion bringing to life a flood of shadowy memories triggered by a fond homecoming.
Serpa takes a calmy rhythmic good-cop role, Matos playing the bad guy with his darkly hypnotic, circular hooks throughout Espelho, while the sparser Os Outros offers something of a break in the clouds. Before that funny ending, there’s a hypnotic, twinkling Postlude. It’s a mesmerizing step to yet another level of mystery and magic from two of the most quietly brilliant composers in any style of music – and ought to get them plenty of film work as well.
Since Svetlana & the Delancey Five have made their home at the Lower East Side backyard-tenement hideaway the Back Room on Norfolk Street for the the past four years, you might expect their leader to play the role of mob moll in front of a band playing gangster favorites from the Lucky Luciano era. Instead, watching her is more akin to being at the Deux Magots in Paris ten years down the line, when Sartre and Beauvoir were hanging out til closing time. Svetlana has devastating wit, cosmopolitan sophistication and an amazing band behind her who are every bit as important to the music as she is. This isn’t just a bunch of guys chilling behind a charismatic singer: Svetlana will jump on a trumpet or sax or piano phrase, or a drum riff and go sailing through the stars, rising from misty bittersweetness to uninhibited exhilaration, just as the band will do when she throws a phrase their way. Yet as wild as these cats can get, they’re more subtle than most of the other oldtimey swing acts out there. They’re bringing that act to the Blue Note this Sunday, Nov 27 for brunch, with sets at 11:30 AM and also 2 PM for all you normal, i.e. night people. New Orleans powerhouse trumpeter/crooner James Williams is Svetlana’s special guest, meaning that they’ll probably be minding the Satchmo-and-Ella songbook that the band explores on their most recent album.
It takes awhile to get a handle on what she does. The first time this blog caught her act, the band was cooking and so was she. The second time out, a rainy night at the Back Room, was much more melancholy and misterioso: she didn’t allow a hint of vibrato into her vocals until the closing cadenza of the last song of the set. Most recently, she charmed an all-Manhattanite audience, fronting the Seth Weaver Big Band at Zinc Bar earlier this week. Svetlana polled the crowd to see where everybody was from, and was reassured that there are still diehard jazz people on this island. And as vividly as she channeled the deadpan vindictiveness of Ellington’s Do Nothing Til You Hear From Me, and balanced that with an exuberant take of It Had to Be You, it was her original, It’s All Good, that made for the best song of the night. It’s an update on classic 30s swing for the here and now. As she hit the chorus, she suddenly rose from a warmly enveloping calm to an eye-opening leap: “When you hear the BIG NOISE, it’s not thunder or storm.” Then she took the audience groundward again: “It’s just the sound of my heart breaking.” The song ended on a characteristically enigmatic note, a little defeated, a little defiant.
Fun fact: Svetlana is a frequent Wycliffe Gordon collaborator, and makes extensive use of his playful, wit-infused charts for jazz standards. She’ll be his special guest this Friday night, Nov 25 at Dizzy’s Club at Jazz at Lincoln Center for his 7:30 PM set with his energetic quintet.
Fun fact #2: Svetlana & the Delancey Five often open with the Gerry Mulligan classic Bernie’s Tune. To be fair, they were doing this long before the 2016 Democratic primaries. But it’s still cool.
If you’re a jazz singer, why on earth would you want to cover a bunch of songs that have been done to death by thousands of others over the years? New York singer Sari Kessler took a bunch of them – along with a few choice obscurities – reinvented them and made them her own, a rare and distinctive achievement. Kessler is a very attentive and nuanced interpreter, working these numbers line by line. Depending on the lyric, she can be disarmingly direct, even biting one second, then misty and melancholy, or coy and sultry the next. Much if not all of her latest album Do Right is streaming at her music page (it hasn’t hit Spotify yet). She’s playing Minton’s uptown on August 21 at 7:30 PM; there’s no cover but there is a two-item (food/drink) minimum which if YOU do right shouldn’t run you more than twenty bucks, maybe a lot less. Remember, coffee and seltzer are drinks.
The album opens auspiciously with a take of Burt Bacharach’s Walk on By that does justice to the Dionne Warwick (e) original but also puts an artsier spin on it. Elvis Costello’s Bacharach collaborations have a lot to recommend them, but this outdoes them in the purist jazz ballad department. Then Kessler reinvents the old Bessie Smith hit After You’ve Gone as a jaunty, defiant bossa, fueled by John di Martino’s dancing piano and Houston Person’s tenor sax, the bandleader taking a coolly triumphant little scat solo as the song winds out.
Kessler subtly builds the Depression-era swing lament Why Don’t You Do Right – the album’s title track, more or less – to a gritty exasperation, echoing the classic Rasputina version emotionally if not musically. The album’s most shattering track is The Gal from Joe’s. Di Martino’s rainy-day piano in tandem with Willard Dyson’s brushy grey-sky drums make it a real haunter, on par with Jeanne Lee’s iconic collaborations with noir pianist Ran Blake.
Kessler and band go a long way toward redeeming Bobby Hebb’s Sunny – reputedly the most-covered song ever – adding a similarly dark, clave-fueled undercurrent. Tackling It’s a Wonderful World may a recipe for disaster, but Kessler reinvents it by duetting with Steve Whipple’s bass, Sarah Vaughan-style, with a hint of klezmer acerbity. Then di Martino comes in and the band swings it, spacious and dancing.
Kessler gives I Thought About You a tender, wistful, gentle clave groove, the balmy horn chart and Nadje Noordhuis’ judicious flugelhorn solo matching guitarist Ron Affif’s purist, low-key bossa approach. The old novelty hit The Frim Fram Sauce, and its Dr. Seuss menu, has new relevance in this era of trendy new spots slinging organic locavore artisanal curated bespoke cuisine in the furthest ghetto corners of Brooklyn; Kessler’s totally deadpan delivery drives the satire home.
Feeling Good follows a steady upward trajectory, Affif’s cautious-then-exuberant solo at the center. The slow drag My Empty Bed Blues has equal parts bittersweetness and retro charm. Kessler imbues Too Close for Comfort with a Sinatra-like knowingness and precision, matched by di Martino’s clenched-teeth solo.. The two wrap up the album with a piano-vocal lullaby take of Moonglow. If you’re sick to death of restaurant singers phoning in stuff like All of Me, Kessler and her first-class band are a breath of fresh air.
Annie Chen sings with a resolute, purposeful alto voice, often with a sense of suspense. But her greatest strength right now, as she becomes more comfortable with her adopted English language, is as a composer. Singer/composers in jazz are rare; those as ambitious, and fearless, and have as much of a gift for melody as Chen are rarer still. She has no issues with leapfrogging from one influence to another, whether that’s vintage soul, the folk and classical music of her native China, purposeful American postbop or more epic larger-ensemble sounds with intricate and unpredictable charts. There’s a sense of the surreal, even a dream state, that permeates much of what she writes, and it draws the listener in. She’s got an auspicious gig coming up on July 10 at 7 PM at Club Bonafide, leading a septet with Glenn Zaleski on piano, Alex Lore on saxophone and flute, David Smith on trumpet, Marius Duboule on guitar, Desmond White on bass and Jerad Lippi on drums, with special guest violinist Tomoko Omura, who’s collaborated vividly with Chen in the past. Cover is $10.
In the time since Chen’s 2014 sextet album Pisces the Dreamer, she’s grown considerably as both as a singer and as a writer. While it’s worth a spin if imaginative postbop arrangements and tunesemithing are concerned, Chen’s most intriguing material right now is recent, and it’s up at her audio and video pages. Check out her septet gig at Flushing Town Hall earlier this year. There’s Orange Tears Lullaby, with its suspenseful pizzicato violin intro into to a lush, vampy verse and eventually a balmy, crescendoing coda over a determined triplet groove. Mr. Wind-Up Bird, Strange Yearning mashes up an Asian folk-tinged theme over a balletesque pulse as Chen scats the blues, alto saxophonis Alex LoRe spiraling optimistically over Jarrett Cherner’s incisive, low-key piano.
Leaving Sonnet is more enigmatic, moody and introspective but with a solid groove as well, trumpeter David Smith slowly and methodically following Chen’s countours as the theme grows more energetic and optimistic, a door closing while another one opens. She also covers Nirvana and a Mongolian folk tune that she turns into a bittersweet tone poem.
And if you have the time, contrast the gritty 2014 Shapeshifter Lab take of another, older original, the latin soul-inspired Things I Know with the much more confident and dynamic version she and the group delivered onstage in Queens earlier this year. Since her arrival from Beijing, Chen has really grabbed the tiger by the tail and hasn’t looked back. Let’s hope she sticks around.
Stephanie Layton stood tall and resolute, a tinge of mist in her voice, in front of her jazz combo Eden Lane at Caffe Vivaldi late last month. “If it was up to me, I’d only sing sad songs,” she told the crowd, concise and to the point – and half of them roared their approval. If there ever was a market for depressed music, New York in 2016 is it.
“But that wouldn’t be well-rounded,” she explained gently. As you would expect from a vocalist who’s in demand as much as she is, Layton is actually very well-rounded. And one suspects that her similarly well-rounded bandmates in the Tickled Pinks – arguably New York’s most irrepressibly fun swing harmony trio, who will be on West Coast tour this August – share her preference for dark material. Karla Moheno leads one of this city’s most mysteriously cinematic, haunting bands, Karla Rose & the Thorns, while Kate Sland sings and plays bass in uneasily swirling rock group Merit Badge. Layton’s other gig is playing piano alongside her singer sister Susanne in honkytonk power trio Dylan Charles & the Layton Sisters. And in a stroke of serendipity, Layton is bringing Eden Lane back to Caffe Vivaldi on July 29 at 9:30 PM.
Last time out at that venue, Layton was in her element. In her auburn bangs, retro red-framed glasses, black top and smart vintage print skirt, she had the David Lynch ingenue persona down cold, a perfect match for her blue velvet vocals. Her purist, inspired backing unit also included Charles on guitar along with bassist Larry Cook, tenor saxophonist Janelle Reichman and pianist.Yan Falmagne. They slowly made their way into My Baby Just Cares For Me, Layton giving it an understated nuance with a nod back to Nina Simone, Reichman’s sax matching Layton’s understatedly pillowy delivery. Then she completely flipped the script with the first of two state-specific songs, a coyly shuffling, wordy rarity from the Blossom Dearie catalog, Rhode Island Is Famous for You, Charles plinking wryly through a verse when Layton threw one his way.
Then she went back to disarmingly direct, bittersweet mode for Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe, less Peggy Lee ballad than angst-ridden wish song lowlit by wee-hours piano underneath Reichman’s long, moodily spiraling solo. Layton duetted with Charles on a briskly swinging, almost defiantly contented take of Mississippi Mud, then went back to geographical jazz with a rare Erik Frandsen tune, the vividly affecting Unique New York. Eight million hearts just can’t be wrong, and she gave voice to every one, hoping they won’t lose their apartments to speculators looking to make a quick flip before the market crashes.
The band kept the wistful, grey-sky mood going, with a knowingly wounded, mentholated tropical tinge, Falmagne leaping in to keep the volume up when Charles added an aptly stark solo. Layton’s resigned interpretation of Rodgers and Hart’s Little Girl Blue was just plain shattering: her “Just sit here and count your fingers,” was enough to get tears from a stone. Likewise, their bittersweetly swaying take of When Sunny Gets Blue echoed the classic Jeanne Lee version, emotionally if not rhythmically. From there they picked up the pace, bouncing their way through No Soap, No Hope on the wings of Reichman’s rapidfire riffage.
Layton matched an anxious, brittle vibrato to her opaquely enveloping low register in an enigmatic take of When the Sun Comes Out, Charles’ rain-off-the-roof solo capping it off. Julie London’s Nice Girls Don’t Stay for Breakfast was next, keeping the heartbroken mood front and center over Falmagne’s judicious phrasing. They closed with a tongue-in-cheek, hungover Sunday pancake afternoon version of Give Me the Simple Life. Some laughs, plenty of goosebumps and enough empathy to pull just about anybody out of the abyss. Dare you to go to Caffe Vivaldi on the 29th and find out for yourself.
For the past couple of months, jazz singer Brianna Thomas has had a series of engagements at Ginny’s Supper Club uptown. Her next gig there is this Saturday night, June 18 with sets at 7:30 and 9 PM; cover is $20. The secret to this place is to grab a space at the bar; otherwise, there’s a minimum if you want to sit, and it’s not cheap. During the week, the place draws a loud afterwork crowd: if it’s the same here on the weekend, Thomas is one of the few acts who could actually work an audience to the point where they’d listen, or at least holler back at her.
None other than Will Friedwald – the guy who wrote the book on jazz singing – anointed her as the best of the current crop of up-and-coming voices in jazz. Her formidable arsenal – a strong, expressive delivery, expert command of phrasing and a love for swing and the classics – is unquestionable. This blog caught her onstage most recently a couple years back at Tompkins Square Park, where she opened the Charlie Parker Jazz Festival, leading a quintet featuring similarly soulful guitarist Russell Malone.
Thomas and the rhythm section gave a joyous, cha-cha-influenced groove to All of Me to open the concert, wasting no time to launch into a jaunty stairstepping scat solo, the piano following her leaps and bounds, sax rising from low-key contrast to a bustling exuberance. That set a tone for the rest of the show, purist and packed with gospel fervor and blues grit, as in the swinging next number’s sax/bass/vocal intro, foreshadowing a coolly slipsliding bass solo midway through. “Say ‘Joy!’ Thomas entreated the crowd, and got the response she wanted. It capsulizes her appeal.
The band hit an Afro-Cuban shuffle from there, bringing a nocturne out into the daylight, Thomas leaping in on the offbeat and leaping even further from soulful melismatics to towering heights through an all-too-brief vocal solo. From there she explored airy, vampy balladry, to a hard-hitting detour into the blues, then funky soul and finally back to classic swing as the band rose and fell behind her, with alternately ebullient and pensive solos all around. The highlight of the set – and the afternoon, as it turned out – was a haunted, dynamically charged minor-key duet with Malone, an original song akin to a 21st century update on Nature Boy.
Despite her gifts as a singer, Thomas is hardly a diva, just a down-to-earth midwestern musician establishing an individual voice, finding new places to go where so many icons have gone before. From a concertgoer’s perspective, this show didn’t involve daydrinking – a hallowed Charlie Parker Festival tradition – but it did involve an awful lot of moving around, partly to stay out of the blistering sun, partly to dodge gaggles of chatty people in order to get something approximating a decent field recording. Exercise in futility: you’d do better to catch Thomas Saturday night or at a similar venue with a good sound system to fully appreciate everything she brings to the table.
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.
On one hand, would you ever want to hear anybody other than Dave Brubeck play Take Five? OK, maybe the surf rock version by Mike Rimbaud. On the other hand, there’s the argument that jazz, like classical or folk music, is a repertoire that any artist with the requisite talent ought to sink their teeth into. Which is where Champian Fulton is coming from on her new album, After Dark, a Dinah Washington tribute streaming at Spotify. Fulton will be playing that material and more in a rare duo show with bassist David Williams at Mezzrow on April 26 at 7:30 PM; cover is $20.
Covering material so closely associated with such an iconic figure is a potential minefield, but Fulton meets that challenge head-on, in a performance that’s respectful but not reverential. On one hand, Fulton has assimilated Washington’s style – those coy little swoops up into head voice, the dips into feline lows, and the spaces between the notes – to the point where there are are many places on this album where, if you didn’t know who the singer was, you would assume it was Washington. On the other, Fulton puts her own stamp on these songs. The new album is a mostly trio affair, with Williams and drummer Lewis Nash as rhythm section plus her dad Stephen Fulton on trumpet and flugelhorn on a handful of numbers.
Another way Fulton differentiates her versions from the originals is that she’s as nuanced and expressive a pianist as she is a singer. Lots of iconic tracks here, beginning with a slowly swinging, uncluttered, gently seductive take of Ain’t Misbehavin’, the elder Fulton’s gentle, smoky muted lines in contrast with the younger’s nonchalant good cheer. That Old Feeling has even more subtlety but also exuberant wit, right from the LOL intro. How does she tackle Washington’s signature song, What a Difference a Day Makes? She lets Nash give it a masterfully hushed, bossa tinge, her piano as spacious as her vocals, a lot more low-key than the original.
Blue Skies gets a rubato intro with a few wisps from Williams’ bow, the trumpet adding a New Orleans jauntiness as the swing kicks in, up to a considered, purposeful piano solo. The group does a perfectly acceptable job with Keeping Out of Mischief Now; on the other hand, it’s sort of redundant, Ain’t Misbehavin’, round two.
A Bad Case of the Blues is a showcase for the bandleader’s elegantly expansive command of that style on the piano as well as on vocals. Travelin’ Light makes a striking contrast between a rather stern, embittered backdrop and a distantly embittered, matter-of-fact approach to a sad storyline, the band picking it up, wryly trading eights as they wind it up to the final chorus. Mad About the Boy is the most stunning reinvention here, part Brecht/Weill, part Beethoven.
All of Me may be the Hotel California of vocal jazz, but the singer makes it worthwhile, with a bass/vocal intro that looks straight back to Sarah Vaughan and Joe Comfort. Give a close listen to the piano solo on slow, slinky version of Baby Won’t You Please Come Home: through the first verse, Fulton voices the lyrics emotion for emotion with her fingers, phrase by phrase, a neat trick. A steady, slow, vocal-less solo piano Midnight Stroll makes an apt closing track, another showcase for her purist command of the blues.
Throughout these songs, what’s most striking is how much care and attention Fulton gives every line, every word: she really sells the lyrics, which isn’t easy because, let’s face it, some of them would sound awfully prosaic delivered by someone who didn’t give a damn. Fulton moves effortlessly and vividly from delight, to wistfulness, to wounded angst in a matter of seconds and makes it seem completely natural, the work of a deep and insightful individual and a rare force on both the keys and the mic.