Kristen Lee Sergeant
Kristen Lee Sergeant may not be your dad or mom’s prototypical jazz vocalist. There isn’t even a hint of scat, for example. She presents a much bigger package, especially here on her third album, Falling, where her interpreter role now takes a back seat to her own original material, composed and arranged both musically and lyrically. The title itself attests to this risk. Some would call it a jump or a leap while she prefers the term ‘falling’ to connote wading into the unknown. This departure from her previous two critically acclaimed albums does not include a break from her usual accompanists, however. Returning are Jeb Patton (piano), Jay Sawyer (drums), Jody Redhage Ferber (cello) and Ted Nash (soprano saxophone). Hannah Marks steps in as the new member on bass.
Based in New York City, both her debut and sophomore releases (Inside Out and Smolder) were awarded DownBeat Magazine ‘Editor’s Pick’ designations and she was praised for “moments of engaging drama, whether she’s seductively sliding into a note with a near-whisper, delivering a breathy revelation or belting out a lyric with full-throated muscularity”. That variety of musical color derives from Sergeant’s span of influences that stretch far across artists (Dianne Reeves, Judy Garland, Joni Mitchell and Fiona Apple) and art forms (jazz, theater, opera and 1970s pop). Her training as both and actress and classical vocalist enable her to create drama, suspense, surprises – all delivered vibrantly and elegantly across an amazing vocal range. That renowned producer Kabir Sehgal and JLCO mainstay Ted Nash are co-producers doesn’t hurt either. Sehgal was so moved by the project that he authored two and half pages of liner notes.
The aptly titled opener “Let’s Fall” sets the scene, as Sergeant doesn’t come out swinging. Instead. she paints a nocturnal soundscape where Patton eventually assumes the major soloist role with ample support from Ferber while Sergeant delivers lyrics such as “Let’s go write our names in the sand/The heat and wind make dust of us all/Let’s fall,” wherein the articulation of that last word even drops an octave in her delivery. The concept of surrendering here is revel in the pleasures of the night, be it gambling or drinking or whatever comes next. She turns to a mythical character in the single, “Sisyphus,” where she tells the age-old tale of “pushing that rock up that hill”. One can take this as railing against repetitive tasks, but Sergeant’s message really points like that sports TV commercial “The only way is through.” Patton’s effervescent piano solo is wondrous and expansive.
Nash’s fluttering soprano colors “Birdsong,” an admonition that we shouldn’t settle too easily and seek freedom instead. She layers her vocals, making it sound at times like a trio instead of a soloist. “Chiaroscuro” references a technique in Renaissance paintings with heavy contrast between light and dark figures – “Cling to me like a shadow/Let the candles dies/Lose ourselves in the darkness/Never bother with why”. Accordingly, the shifting music accompaniment alternates between bright passages from Patton and equally dark ones from Ferber. “Honey,” on the other hand, is one of three blues. It leans toward the upbeat side, rife with lyrical metaphors and robust bass lines from Marks.
Nash’s searching soprano solo begins “Infinity Blues,” composed after Sergeant met an astronaut. “Swing doesn’t have to be retro,” Sergeant notes. She sings, “I’ve got the infinity blues / I want no weight in my shoes”, epitomizing the song’s essential, existential drifting through life, as she soars to stratospheric (pardon me), glass shattering levels in her last line – “I’m ready to fly.” Her “Better Off” is an off-kilter breakup message imbued by Marks and Ferber, which Sergeant caps off lyrically with the lingering line “I’m better off alone,” impactfully delivered over a dissonant piano and single foreboding bass notes. The last original, “Orpheus,” flips the switch to real toe tapping swing as Nash takes flight with an expansive solo and Sergeant displays her command of tempo changes and theatrical conventions.
Not totally abandoning her interpretive skills that built her reputation on her first two albums, she engages in the reflective “Autumn Nocturne,” sounding at times operatic in her elegant take. The album’s most energetic track is the closer, “That Old Black Magic,” as Sergeant and Nash bounce phrases off each other, and the rhythm section drives and pushes Sergeant who wails away – “that old black magic called love!”, as Nash continues his inspired, rapid runs only to fade away.
Yes, in keeping with the lyrics in a couple of her compositions, one can truly get lost in this project as is Sergeant’s wont – “From Greek myths to outer space, I hope to bring listeners on a rewarding and thoughtful journey in sound. And I get to be their Virgil, stumbling down ahead of them.” It stands as one of the most original vocal recordings you’ll hear, imprinted with a lasting emotional impact that lingers long after the final notes are played and sung.
- Jim Hynes