Jewel City Jazz
L.A. vocalist Judy Wexler is releasing her fifth album, Crowded Heart, in which she presents a forward look at the Great American Songbook, jazz standards for the 21st Century. In some ways it’s comparable to Chris Stamey’s forthcoming project, due at the end of the month, New Songs for the 20th Century. Despite the difference in the reference to century, both draw from a similar idea. Stamey composed the bulk of his material looking back while Wexler didn’t write but chose compositions from contemporary composers, thereby looking forward. Working with celebrated pianist and arranger Alan Pasqua and some of the first-call musicians in Southern California, Wexler knew what she was after, selecting appropriate material for her warm, soulful voice and those that gave her an opportunity for her own personal stamp in terms of interpretation.
In selecting these songs, Wexler set a high bar and the process took about a year to complete. She was seeking the perfect marriage of lyrics ( compelling story through vivid, evocative images) and melody (beautiful and memorable). Armed with the songs, the next step was to enlist Pasqua, who had worked on several of her previous albums. She completely trusted his judgement in helping in select the final repertoire heard here. Pasqua is a legend in both jazz and pop. In jazz he’s recorded with The New Tony Williams Lifetime and Jack DeJohnette, among many others. In pop, he recorded two albums with bob Dylan and three with Santana, as well as touring and/or recording with Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, and Elton John. Needless to say, Wexler chose wisely and continued the pattern by calling on guitarist Larry Koonse, multi-reed player Bob Sheppard; long-time cohorts – bassist Darek Oles, drummer Steve Hass and cellist Stefanie Fife. The new friends are alto saxophonist Josh Johnson (Esperanza Spalding, Wayne Shorter) and percussionist Aaron Serfaty (Arturo Sandoval). They each play on select tracks. Johnson is especially strong on “Painted on Canvas.”
The title track is one of the first songs she selected. It was composed by her good friend Sinne Eeg, a Danish vocalist and songwriter with an international fan base. It’s a co-write with Mads Mathias, who wrote the lyrics about the end of an affair with a married man. “Parisian Heartbreak” was composed by accordionist Richard Galiano and Pasqua mimics an accordion somewhat by playing melodica. “Circus Life,” by Luciana Souza, Larry Klein and David Batteau, is a samba about the stresses of modern life. You’ll hear Pasqua whistling toward the end. “Painted on Canvas” was written by jazz, soul, and gospel artist Gregory Porter and appeared on his CD Be Good.
“Stars” was written by renowned pianist Fred Hersch whose original instrumental version is “Endless Stars.” Noted British vocalist and lyricist Norma Winstone wrote the lyrics and shortened the title. It’s a standout track as Wexler navigates some challenging changes. “The Last Goodbye” was penned by Grammy-winning pianist Alan Broadbent with lyrics from British vocalist Georgia Mancio. “Take My Breath Away” is Wexler’s sultry, sexy interpretation of Rene Marie’s suggestive tune. “I Took Your Hand” was written by Italian pianist and composer Enrico Pieranunzi with lyrics from Lorraine Feather. It is one of the more interesting stories as a woman goes to a ball land falls deeply in love with a masked reveler just by touching his hand. “It’s Only Smoke” is another in the sultry camp, with music by Larry Goldings and lyrics by Cliff Goldmacher. The closer, “And We Will Fly” was penned by Pasqua with lyrics from Kurt Elling and Phillip Galdston. It originally appeared in instrumental form on Pasqua 2005 CD, My New Old Friend. It makes for a lovely sensuous ending to a sensuous album, especially in the second half.
Given the nationalities of the various composers, it’s clear that Wexler did extensive research. Maybe this is the start of “The Great Global Songbook.” Excuse the term, but today’s jazz and much of music in general is global anyway. It is the 21st Century after all. Wexler captures it well in her comment in the liners – “The songs on Crowded Heart were composed by some of the finest jazz writers and performers on the scene today. By recording these newer, great jazz tunes, in some small way I’m doing my part to give them the wider exposure they deserve. To quote jazz historian Ted Giola (author of The Jazz Standards), ‘That’s how jazz stays alive and becomes more than a history lesson or museum piece’.”
This is an impeccably well-researched an executed project. Wexler’s warm vocals and beckoning personality are akin to a friend welcoming you into her home. Once there, you’ll want to stay for a good long time.
- Jim Hynes