Never judge an album by its cover. I thought that Natalie Williams’ Holiday album ‘A Little Bit of Christmas’ was a country album, but as it turns out, it is a jazzy one. Williams is an up and coming jazz singer in the United Kingdom and she has already gotten a bit of acclaim. This album will steer her to get more. Williams has a jazz vibe in her singing, and has a soulful voice that is apparent in these tracks. When I heard her ‘O Holy Night,’ for example, I couldn’t help but pay attention – the high notes did not seem forced. And I actually liked her original songs: ‘What Does Santa Get For Christmas,’ was pretty catchy, and there’s a welcome sauciness in ‘Xmas X My XXX.’ All in all, you don’t get a sense of sameness when you are listening to the album, and for me, that is always very welcome.
How about a jazzy Christmas album? I’ve got a fine new one this year, by Champian Fulton. I don’t really know who she is, but she sounds pretty damn good. She swings like a chandelier, and the arrangements reflect her ability. I really love her lively takes on these Christmas ditties, especially in tracks like ‘White Christmas,’ and ‘Winter Wonderland.’ She has a very distinct personality, mixing in some Mexican influences in her interpretations, and indeed, even putting a Spanish song, ‘Gracias I Dios’ in the album. What results is really an enchanting Holiday album, brimmed with some enchantment and musicality.
When October goes, can Christmas be far behind? Well, at least Holiday music is here, and here I am listening to my first one for 2017. I have always been a lover of Holiday music, but old age has made me perhaps a bit cynical about it. But still, I still get a thrill when it is fresh and new, and Leslie Odom Jr’s new album ‘Simply Christmas’ made my heart skip a bit.
This is a smooth jazz album and is probably best when played to with a few cocktails, because Odom Jr’s soulful renditions inspire more contemplation. I like the melancholy ‘Merry Christmas Darling,’ and he can even make ‘The Christmas Song’ sound fresh (or close to it) and his ‘Ave Maria’ is right on mark. The album can at times be too mellow – I listened to it straight through once and fell asleep. But with your coffee and whiskey, this album is good company.
I took a long bus trip recently and I was armed with Katharine McPhee’s new album ‘I Fall In Love Too Easily,’ and I was looking forward to listening to it. I really liked her enough in SMASH, though admittedly don’t really know much of her musical work outside of that. And I know she has matured so I thought this would be a good time for her to do a standards album. After all, didn’t she do well in Idol for singing ‘Over The Rainbow?’
But after the first spin, I was very disappointed in the album – mainly because of two words – vocal fry. I may sound ancient when I say this, but that is the worst vocal affectation in modern singing. Why McPhee would manipulate her husky soulful voice to clipped ‘aches,’ I have no idea, but yes i know the kids love it so what do I know. She knows how to make beautiful sounds with her voice otherwise, and frankly, she does that over lyric interpretation. But perhaps I was expecting too much from her. There are time where her renditions *almost* work – like in simpler songs like ‘All the Way,’ and ‘Who Can I Turn To’ (the latter is even close to beautiful) But on more intricate songs like ‘I Fall In Love Too Easily’ or ‘Blame It On My Youth,’ you can see how green (read: Clueless) she is with the lyrics. And when she tackles ‘I Didn’t Know What Time It Was,’ I just couldn’t help but scratch my head.
But Don Was’ pretty-packaging production wraps it all in quiet elegant arrangements (strings! let’s add more strings!) so it all goes down easy enough. I really do think there’s a good standards in McPhee, but perhaps not just yet. Maybe when she becomes the next ex Mrs. Foster?
There is a sub-genre in jazz vocals that I love – that ballad-heavy, voice and piano, late-night evocative mood. Few people do it, and even fewer excel at it. In ‘The Late Set,” Hilary Gardner (with pianist) and Ehud Asherie captures that mood perfectly. This is late night at its finest. I will be like Sophia Petrillo and will set it up. Almost everyone have gone home, but the singer and piano is still there. They start to play, even as the staff has started to clean up the joint. Think One For My Baby And One More For The Road. Gardner’s vocals and full and pristine, and Asherie’s ear for her tempo and phrasing is spot on – these two definitely know each other musically. When she tears into ‘Shadow Waltz,’ you are there for all teh heartache and pain, and rhythm and the blues. When she croons ‘Make Someone Happy,’ and ‘After You’ve Gone,’ you definitely know you are in good hands. I listened to this disc with my eyes closed, in the darkness and felt every nuance, every phrase. Nocturnal sublime.
While looking through various standards albums, Virginia Ayers Dawson’s disc, ‘Standards Of Love,’ popped out at me because she sings one song: ‘Dahil Sa Yo.’ This is a classic Filipino song, a ‘standard’ from that country, if you will. It is a favorite of mine from the old country, and of course I am very curious as to how she found out about the song, and why she recorded it. I searched on the internet and I cannot find anything about her that connects her to it, besides the fact that she is based in Sacramento, California, and I think that there is a big Filipino community there.
So how does she fare with the song, by the way? She does it very well, and handles the Tagalog lyrics good enough, and even adds the English lyrics. She does a smooth jazz arrangement that serves the song well, and all in all, I like her version.
The rest of the album is fine as well. As I said, her sound veers more smooth jazz, think late Nancy Wilson. Her voice has a lot of character, and she sounds like she knows what she is singing about – I like her medlette of More/L-O-VE among all the tracks here.
But still, I go back to Dahil Sa Yo, perhaps I should email her via her website and ask?
I have seen a lot of jazz singer hyphenates, but this is the first one I have seen jazz singer/conductor. Beth Malvezzi is a singer/pianist/ conductor from the Connecticut area and I have just played her album ‘My Shining Hour.’ This is your standard album of standards, and Malvezzi has a nice smooth middle-ranged voice, and sings mostly in tune, and has a nice sense of rhythm. And that’s it. I wish there were something else I can say about her and her album, but it just blends through everything else I hear. The most interesting thing I can say about it is that I liked her version of the Connie Francis song ‘Mama,’ complete with Italian lyrics. Whenever I hear that song, I am reminded of my own mother and how much I miss her. But besides that, it is just so nice and bland that I have already forgotten the music seconds after hearing it.