Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Killer Vocal Jazz. Yes, I'm Serious.

Alright, I know that I've had my scrapes in vocal jazz in the past months (I think my two least favorable reviews so far this year have been of Dianne Reeves' vomit-worthy "When You Know" and Roberta Gambarini and Hank Jones' terminally boring "You Are There"), but I'm here to make up for all of that so that the Gods of sung jazz can reverse my karma for the better. The two vocal jazz albums that I've heard recently to review for this blog (Cassandra Wilson's "Loverly" and Moss' self-titled debut called, well, "Moss") are totally different, but equally great. "Moss" is an innovative, folky, dare-I-say "rural jazz," album in which five luminaries from the vocal jazz world (Kate McGarry, Theo Blackmann, Peter Eldridge, Laura Kinhan, and my vocal hero Luciana Souza) sing originals and covers of the likes of Tom Waits, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, whereas "Loverly" is a more-or-less straight ahead affair featuring mostly standards done brilliantly with a stellar rhythm section (pianist Jason Moran, guitarist Marvin Sewell, bassists Reginald Veal or Lonnie Plaxico, and drummer Herlin Riley) that gets a lot of time to show off.

Upon first view, it seems as though Cassandra Wilson hasn't made an album as straight-ahead as "Loverly" in at least ten years, but the beauty of "Loverly" lies in its depth. While it is not a cutting-edge jazz record by any standard, Wilson has no problem allowing her sidemen play some extremely angular solos (check out the way Marvin Sewell holds some really weird notes on "Wouldn't it be Loverly"), and each member of her great rhythm section makes the most of their time in the spotlight. The highlight of the album is a version of "St. James Infirmary," a song played over and over and over that Wilson makes fresh by turning into a slab of hard-core, M-Base funk. Jason Moran plays a chopped-up, bluesy solo, while Sewell comps up a storm with some extremely dissonant voicings. Wilson even does some cool rhythmic scatting during Sewell's solo. Albums like "Loverly" are the reason that people like Roberta Gambarini keep on mining the same old standards; sometimes in the right hands they just sound great. Recommended.

"Moss" is totally different, and this is clear about five seconds into the album; as opposed to opening with a standard (or an original that sounds like it could be a standard), it opens with a neo-classical rendition of a verse of Joni Mitchell's "Shadows and Light." The rest of the album walks the line between jazz, classical, and folk-rock, hitting its apex with Kate McGarry singing a beautiful, enlightening version of Neil Young's "Old Man," that, with minimal changes to Young's arrangement, still sounds like jazz. Each of the five singers have spotlights (another highlight is Luciana Souza's vocal on her original "Home"), although the most interesting tracks are group passages like "Object Devotion" and the two versions of "Shadows and Light," which really show the group's interplay. Also, guitarist Ben Monder's work on this album alone makes it worth a listen; as opposed to taking up a lot of solo space, he opts to stay on the sidelines (with a few notable exceptions, such as on "Home"), comping brilliantly and innovatively throughout. Also recommended.

Vocal jazz can be good when it's done well. Moss and Cassandra Wilson do it well; Dianne Reeves, not so much. Both albums are definitely worth a listen if you can get your hands on them; "Moss" in particular is a great listen if you're looking for yet another splinter of the "rural jazz" direction that Bill Frisell and Jenny Scheinman have been moving in. Next time I'll either have a review of Marc Ribot's "Party Intellectuals" or my first annual Guess-The-Downbeat-Critic's-Poll post.

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