The Birdsongs Project
Jazz vocalist Ellynne Rey delivers this interesting project of bird songs by a wide array of writers including Blossom Dearie, Joni Mitchell, Hoagy Carmichael, Abbey Lincoln, Franz Shubert, and the Beatles. Looking at that list, you could likely guess some of the songs, but you might be wrong on some too. She’s assembled a strong sextet led by her longtime associate pianist/organist Bennett Paster, whose own solo album Indivisible was covered on these pages just last week. Freddie Bryant (guitar), Marcus McLaurine (bass), Alex Norris (trumpet), Joel Frahm (tenor saxophone), and guest Jacquelene Acevedo (percussion) form the unit along with alternating drummers Anthony Pinciotti and Joe Strasser.
You could say, no pun intended, that this project comes naturally to Rey who is a devoted bird watcher and photographer. She says in the liners, “The Birdsongs Project began late last spring, after a spate of unusual “lifebird” sightings and striking rarities like the Snowy Owl. Avid birdwatchers, such as myself, live for such things. I called my friend and wonderful pianist, Bennett Paster. I told him that I wanted to make a new recording with him and had to have a bird theme. A few weeks later, I found myself in Brooklyn, by Bennett’s fantastic Steinway, exploring songs on a list I had compiled of songs featuring birds. This evolved into The Birdsongs Project.”
Rey composed the opening “Conversation with a Snowy Owl,” a jazz waltz with insightful lyrics and scat singing, as she captures the joy she felt having observed them for the first time. Norris provides a soaring trumpet solo. She also wrote English lyrics to “The Crow,” (die Krahe), a transformation of a classic melody by Schubert, and she appends Charlie Parker’s “Ornithology,” a requisite tune for the project, where she and Frahm have a spirited dialogue, with “Bluesy and the Cat,” a takeoff on “How High the Moon.”
Guitarist Bryant is the featured soloist across a samba groove on Rey’s interpretation of the rather obscure Blossom Dearie’s “I Thought I Heard a Hummingbird.” She faithfully renders Carmichael’s standard “Skylark” but makes Joni Mitchell’s “Song to a Seagull” barely recognizable. At its beginning, and again on “Blackbird” Frahm plays a little known ocarina, a vessel flute with four to 12 finger holes to create bird sounds. Frahm also plays an aggressive tenor solo on “Song to a Seagull” and for his contributions here and elsewhere is a clear standout in this sextet, “Flamingo” being another outstanding example.
Paster and Bryant drive the mid-tempo “Shadow of Your Smile” before settling into the ballad “The Peacocks” which is perhaps Rey’s best vocal performance, especially in the high register. Paster takes the organ for Carmichael’s “Baltimore Oriole,” another one featuring soulful tenor sax from Frahm. Rey displays her vocal nuances in Abbey Lincoln’s ballad “Bird Alone” accompanied by Paster’s shimmering piano and McLaurine’s standup sensitive bass solo. “Blackbird,” never considered a rousing tune, is transformed into one with several inventive changes, some that are rollicking, by Rey and the sextet, taking the disc to a joyous conclusion.
This is only Rey’s second CD and the first listen for this writer. She’s impressive and bound to gain more well-deserved recognition. This one has plenty of shining moments.
- Jim Hynes