The Long Game
Jacqui Naylor is not your prototypical jazz vocalist. She stands apart in this intensely competitive field from those who revel in an over reliance the Great American Songbook, scat, and predictable fare. She is a terrific writer and an inventive interpreter of contemporary material found in other genres. And then there’s her voice – robust enough to be a blues singer, slightly reminiscent of Amy Winehouse but bearing some of the phrasing and emotional qualities of Shirley Horn. Her voice has been described by various writers as alto, contralto, and close to baritone, so let’s just say she has range and versality. In short, she brings a dynamic and refreshing perspective to the jazz vocalist scene. She’s been doing it for a while too, as The Long Game is her eleventh album.
Naylor is adept at fitting jazz arrangements to unexpected fare from rock and other genres as exemplified here with “Space Oddity” (David Bowie), “Don’t Give Up (Peter Gabriel), and “Fix You” (Cold Play). In addition, she gives Latin treatments to Kurt Weill’s “Speak Low” and Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile.” She pens seven originals and does cover two other standards – “Like Someone in Love” and “The Thrill Is Gone” (not the B.B. King tune). Her originals are co-written with her musical partner and husband, keyboardist, guitarist and arranged Art Khu. He leads her longtime team of bassist Jon Evans (Tori Amos, Paula Cole, Sarah McLachlan), and drummer Josh Jones (Don Cherry, Omar Sosa, Steve Coleman). As you see, even her bandmates are versatile accompanists.
To be more specific about her jazz technique in cover songs, she uses an arranging technique she calls “acoustic smashing” where she sings the melody of a jazz standard over the groove of a well-know rock song or vice versa. Obviously, it’s the latter with “Fix You,” where the band plays “It Never Entered My Mind” in modular form. The familiar opening of “Ground Control to Major Tom” of “Space Oddity” doesn’t even feel that odd (sorry) in this context as Naylor removes the haunting backdrop of the original and takes it in a slow-burning blues/soul groove infused by Khu’s B3. Gabriel’s “Don’t Give Up” is taken at a deliberately slow pace, almost in a spoken word approach with Khu’s piano and the rhythm tandem in tightly restrained support. While the original carries a tone of desperation, Naylor’s phrasing of the tune speaks more to optimism and encouragement. These tunes were all selected by Naylor’s fans via ballots distributed at her performances, a process she has used on her last four projects.
Among the originals, “Love Look What You’ve Done” also speaks to hope as well as the joy of finding love after a long search. The title track covers similar ground while “It’s the Right Time” conveys the importance of connecting with loved ones and having a positive outlook. “All My Life” is appreciation for her husband. It closes the album with these words –“When my days are over, I’ll be happy that I spent my life with you.” Most of the songs were recorded in just one take, live off the floor.
Naylor is a global performer, appearing at many high-profile festivals and venues. Her original music has graced national advertising campaigns and her signature song “Celebrate Early and Often” was named by Martha Stewart Weddings as one of the best new wedding songs. Along with her presence on television and in film, there is a full-length documentary about her entitled Lucky Girl. She has made the “Top 10” list often in several reputable publications and outlets. You’ll find three full pages of Naylor YouTube videos in your Google search, the most popular of which is her cover of REM’s “Losing My Religion.” Somehow, she hasn’t been on this writer’s radar until now. It’s not always easy to break through the clutter and deluge of album releases but Naylor has done so impressively.
- Jim Hynes
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