Jazz singers are in today’s spotlight. Taking a look at a variety of stunning new CDs by Thana Alexa, Keri Johnsrud, Gillian Margot, Joanna Pascale and Charenée Wade….
Thana Alexa, Ode to Heroes (Harmonia Mundi / Jazz Village)
New York City-born, Croatia-raised Thana Alexa has an exotic voice and significant talent as a composer and lyricist. This is her debut CD as a leader after guesting on several CDs by guitarist Gene Ess and her husband, the fine drummer Antonio Sanchez, who co-produced this session. In addition to writing eight originals, she also penned fresh lyrics for and arranged the music for “Trace Back Your Footprints” (Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints”) and “The Wanderer” (her version of Charles Mingus’ Lester Young elegy, “Goodbye Porkpie Hat”).
My favorites: the title track, which she wrote with Sanchez and tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin in mind; the “Footprints” redux and “Ghost Hawk,” which she wrote in memory to her brother Niki, who died five years ago in a motorcycle accident. She also included a lovely version of “Take Five,” the Paul Desmond classic with lyrics by Dave and Iola Brubeck. Alexa is a musician who happens to sing. She employs scatting and vocalese to sparing, yet great, effect on several tracks. Other key collaborators here include pianist Sergio Salvatore, bassist Jorge Roeder and tenor player Lenart Krecic (McCaslin only guests on the powerful title track).
Keri Johnsrud, This Side of Morning (self-produced)Singer-songwriter Keri Johnsrud has been working in the Chicago jazz scene for about 15 years. All of her material here is original, with her writing the lyrics and pianist Kevin Bales writing most of the music for her finely honed musical short stories. Like the great preponderance of vocal material, she explores various aspects of love, romance and love lost - through her own filters and imagination. The gems include “When Morning Dawns,” “Everything’s Okay,” and the clever “The Chameleon.” The band includes bassist Larry Kohut, guitarist Neal Alger, drummer Jon Deitemyer and vibes player Stephen Lynerd, all of who provide strong support and memorable solos. Check her out.
Gillian Margot, Black Butterfly (HiPNOTIC)
The great thing about jazz projects is that musicians can take a range of fine material from other genres and enhance it in their own way. Toronto-based Gillian Margot and her producer, trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, recruited a team of fine New York-based musicians for this project, in which Margot puts her own stamp on a wide variety of jazz, pop and soul tunes. The band includes Pelt, saxophonist Roxy Cross, guitarist Freddie Bryant, pianist Anthony Wonsey, bassist Richie Goods and drummer Kendrick Scott. The opening title track is a hybrid, with Margot adding her own lyrics to pianist George Cables’ jazz tune “Ebony Moonbeams.”
No matter whether she’s taking a gospel or bluesy approach in her interpretations, Margot’s sound is imbued with subtlety, pathos and wistfulness. The gems include her takes on Curtis Mayfield’s “The Makings of You,” a bluesy ballad version of Simply Red’s “1985 hit “Holding Back the Years,” and an a capella version of Joni Mitchell’s “Conversation.” There’s also a fine original blues in which she’s backed only by Goods on upright bass. That one’s a conversation too.
Joanna Pascale, Wildflower (Stiletto)Philly-based Joanna Pascale says she only sings songs that she loves and connects with. That approach greatly enhances Wildflower, her fourth CD as a leader. She’s backed by producer Orrin Evans on piano, Vicente Archer on bass, and Obed Calvaire on drums. Cyrus Chestnut (piano and B-3 organ, Christian McBride and Luques Curtis (bass), Donald Edwards (drums) and Gregoire Maret (harmonica) are among the special guests on select tracks. She even performs J.J. Johnson’s jazz ballad “Lament,” with fresh lyrics written for her by Tony Haywood.
Favorite tracks: the opener “Forget Me,” which Washington DC-based poet Valerie Brown wrote and her good friend Shirley Horn first recorded; Pascale’s takes on Stevie Wonder’s “Overjoyed” and the Gerry Goffin-Carole King pop classic “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” (both enhanced by Maret’s wonderful harmonica work); and a splendid cover of Henry Glover’s soulful “Drown in My Own Tears” (with Maret on harmonica and Chestnut on B-3). The title track, a 1970s pop hit for Skylark that’s been covered by many singers over the years, sure endures. Pascale does it justice here with a wistful version featuring guitarists Kurt Rosenwinkel and Tim Motzer, and backing vocals by soul singer Bilal. There is much here to savor, as Pascale celebrates quality songwriting.
Charenée Wade, Offering – The Music of Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson (Motéma)2010 Monk International Jazz Competition runner-up Charenée Wade has brought her vocal talents and life’s perspective to 11 pieces from the voluminous songbook of the late Gil Scott-Heron and his frequent musical collaborator Brian Jackson. Christian McBride and Malcolm-Jamal Warner are the narrators on two Scott-Heron pieces, “Peace Go With You, Brother” (from his Winter in America album) and “Essex/Martin, Grant Byrd & Till” respectively. The tracks include “Song of the Wind,” “Peace Go With You Brother,” “Ain’t No Such Thing as Superman,” “Home is Where the Hatred is, and the optimistic “I Think I’ll Call it Morning.”
Wade’s all-star musical collaborators are pianist Brandon McCune, guitarist Dave Stryker, bassist Lonnie Plaxico, drummer Alvester Garnett, vibes player Stefon Harris, alto saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin and Marcus Miller on bass clarinet. Four decades after we heard Scott-Heron deal with growing up black in America issues – perhaps the clearest inspiration for the rap and hip-hop genres – with anger, pathos and optimism, current events show his social empowerment message is just as relevant today. Wade and her collaborators have carried that reminder forth with great beauty, feeling, hope and triumph.