Back to the Garden
Los Angeles-based jazz vocalist Judy Wexler is taking more risks with each album, Back to the Garden, being her sixth. Her last effort, 2018’s Crowded Heart (covered here) had her stepping away from Great American Songbook fare to present, in this writer’s terminology, the Great Global Songbook, compositions from contemporary writers around the world. Yet, they were still mostly jazz songs. On Back to the Garden Wexler reimagines well-known pop/rock/folk songs through a jazz lens. This is truly a courageous undertaking as many of us, this writer included, have lived with these songs for 50-60 years now. To many, these are sacred tunes and should not be tampered with. So, depending on your perspective and open mindedness, most will applaud some and reject others. She’s drawing parallels to the messages of hope, love, and change and sees them as timely given our country’s divisive state. The album title inevitably conjures Woodstock, but the emphasis leans more toward folk with songs with Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, Fred Neil, and Stephen Stills among the writers.
Wexler’s longtime pianist and arranger Jeff Colella arranged most of them while pianist and composer Josh Nelson contributed Simon’s “American Tune” and Denny’s “Who Knows Where the Time Goes.” Nelson’s arrangements are straightforward while some of Colella’s are so transformative, it almost seems like you’re listening to a different song – Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” being the prime example, with its start and stop rhythms, Wexler’s inventive phrasing, and a terrific alto sax spot from Danny Janklow. Some of the choices are unexpected. “Since You’ve Asked” is the first song Judy Collins wrote and in one sense, the repertoire here is one that we could envision as a Collins set list. Collins has covered Dylan, Mitchell, and Denny extensively throughout her career.
Wexler connects in a major way in several places, but her soft touch is devoid of the angst that made Dylan’s “Times They Are A Changin’” and Stills’ “For What It’s Worth” so salient. Arguably, those two do not benefit from subtlety. Similarly, the opening Youngbloods “Get Together” lacks the urgency of the original. Yet, she deserves credit for taking these on and the musical touches that imbue the whole album are brilliant. Larry Koonse’s electric guitar in the Stills song is arguably better than that of the original. Colella’s melodica in “The Times They Are A Changin” is creative, and a nice musical substitute for Dylan’s ragged harmonica. And, speaking of such, NYC-based harmonica master Hendrik Meurkens shines on the instrument in Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin’.”
Colella and Wexler recruited many top musicians who support Wexler’s creative phrasing in her smooth, elegant, and graceful takes. Beyond those already mentioned, they are frequent collaborators bassist Gabe Davis and drummer Steve Hass. Colella’s rich and layered arrangements call for special added touches to these songs. The talents that add them include Bob Thiele, Jr. on electric and baritone guitar, Jay Jennings (Snarky Puppy) on trumpet (“Who Knows Where the Time Goes”), and Grammy-nominated Sara Caswell (violin) (“Forever Young”). The string section of violinists Joel Pargman and Carrie Kennedy, violaist Rodney Wirtz, and cellist Stefanie Fife color a couple of tunes. Vocalist Erin Bentlage arranged and contributed layered background vocals on four tracks and is especially effective on “Big Yellow Taxi” and Dylan’s “Forever Young.” The musicianship throughout, even on the aforementioned “misses” is consistently strong and imaginative.
Wexler’s warm, well-articulated vocals fit Denny’s “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” beautifully in perhaps the most faithful arrangement of any song herein, which is fine. Revel in the beauty of Wexler’s rich vocals and sensitive accompaniment from Colella’s piano and Jennings’ trumpet for a tune typically rendered with just an acoustic guitar-based backdrop. This performance, as much as any, indicates that these songs, most 50-60 years old, are the next group of standards comprising The Great American Songbook. Give Wexler credit for breathing new life into them and allowing us to hear them so differently.
- Jim Hynes
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