Paul Jost Quartet
While We Were Gone – Live at Soapbox Gallery
Paul Jost’s While We Were Gone may well be the top jazz vocal album of 2021. Yes, we said the same about Roseanna Vitro’s Sing a Song of Bird, but let’s just consider that one a collaborative vocal effort. Jost delivers a singular tour-de-force across two CDs. You’ll recognize a whole slew of song titles here but will be stunned at how creatively he transforms them. Also, he’s the first artist to call out the events of January 6th in song. (Note: Blues artist Corey Harris does so also on his forthcoming release due November 5.) He entitles Disc 1 Poetic Justice and Disc 2 An Appeal for Reason. The Paul Jost Quartet is a group of longtime cohorts – pianist Jim Ridl, drummer Tim Horner and bassist Dean Johnson, with fellow bassists Lorin Cohen or Martin Wind subbing on select tracks. Jost sings and plays harmonica.
Jost and his bandmates began performing live just one day a month at the Soapbox Gallery, an art and performance space in Brooklyn, when the Covid-19 lockdown started to ease up. The venue recorded the performances and he had enough to fill 2 CDs after five months. His original intent was to release a few tracks digitally but after a recent performance in Los Angeles, jazz vocal producer Dan Divalla convinced him to release the complete set of performances. Jost has a unique ability to present the emotional heart of a song in new ways that connect with listeners. He says, “…It’s not that I’m just trying to be different, but I have my own perspectives that I try to present truthfully and honestly.
As mentioned, each disc begins with honest and heartfelt statements in reaction to political and social issues. On Disc One he begins with a harmonica take on “Shenandoah” ending with a phrase from the “Star Spangled Banner,” as American as one can be. He then addresses the Big Lie with “Lies of Convenience,” a spoken word piece that indirectly addresses the Election – “If truth becomes too great a weight to bear, too deafening to hers, too blinding to see, hearts can weaken and be convinced that what’s wrong is right…” “Forever,” a short piece he wrote in memory of George Floyd follows, concluding with an excerpt of a tune he wrote, “Who Says,” before his amazing reimagining of “Bye Blackbird,” wherein he directly references racial injustice. It is beyond hip, his swinging scatting and the way he emphasizes the choruses, capped off by Ridl’s expressive piano.
He covers two Randy Newman tunes, “Feels Like Home” and “Marie,” putting his signature stamp on them, singing with a deeper emotive quality than Newman did. There are also the standards “Lover Man,” “A Beautiful Friendship,” “My Foolish Heart,” and “Some Other Time,” all strong, but the heart of Disc One is the sequence of “Centerpiece,” Fred Neil’s “Ev’rybody’s Talkin’,” and “Gentle Rain,” where his captivating vocal is framed beautifully by his accompanists. “Gentle Rain,” as much as any track here features outstanding work from his band. “Centerpiece” leads in with a bass intro and has both scat and hip half spoken half sung lyrics as well as poignant harmonica, both his solo and the killer outro, and an energetic Horner drum solo. It would fit just as easily in those infamous Beat jazz poetry settings or as a swinging number in a jazz club. Edgy and surprising in so many ways it’s Neil’s tune though, that is the most surprising of all. His is a down tempo reading of the tune that through his previous studio recording, 2019’s Simple Life where we learned that in the promo video Jost said the inspiration for this arrangement is drawn from the misdiagnoses of Mark Murphy with Altzeimers. The arrangement starts by referencing Murphy’s “Stolen Moments” motive as he almost speaks the lyrics before taking us through a journey of emotions ranging from serenity to chaos and back as he tries to imagine what it would be like to imagine your own unraveling. The emotions he carves out here, and the use of his voice as horn-like instrument make for a stunning interpretation.
Given this is the first time we have written about Jost on these pages, his musical connections are fascinating. He has written over 40 CDs for major music libraries, and his music is heard daily in over 750 U.S. markets. This is his fifth album as a leader, having released prior to Simple Life, Peace and Love (2017), Breaking Through (2014), and Can’t Find My Way Home (2013). He is a four category Billboard Song Contests Winner and two of his songs, “A Book Faded Brown” and “Half the Time” were recorded by The Band (Jubilation), Carl Perkins (Friends, Families and Legends) and Rick Danko (The Last Waltz). His lone composition on this project, “Livin’ in the Wrong Time” was written in 1995 and also appeared on Simple Life. It’s here at his wife’s urging because it is relevant to today’s political and social climate and follows the “January 6th: An Appeal to Reason” which opens Disc 2.
Jost opens Disc 2 with a spoken piece about the January 6 insurrection, which he ends with a version of appropriately for that last occupant of the White House, “If I Ruled the World.” After his “Livin’ in the Wrong Time” he takes on a Donovan tune, “Sunshine Superman,” one that’s also been covered by Charles Lloyd and the late Dr. Lonnie Smith. Jost has a minute plus drum solo to introduce the tune and then delivers a seven-minute plus inventively rhythmic version unlike no other. He devotes the balance of Disc two to standards, delivering the practically unrecognizable but highly create “On the Sunny Side of the Street.” From there he proceeds in almost suite-like style, due to the seamless segues, a journey through “If I Had You.” “I Thought About You,” “The Nearness of You,” “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was,” and “We’ll Be Together Again.”
It’s Jost’s dramatic recitations combined with operatic flair, a command of dynamics, a jazz sensibility for swing, and emotive power that set him apart. This is a vocal performance for the ages.
- Jim Hynes