Jazz is a paradox that is both compromising and uncompromising. It is compromising as an assimilating art, one that absorbs all influences that touch it. It is uncompromising that jazz demands virtuosity and creativity. It is this paradox that allows the genre to contain both a Sarah Vaughan and Dianna Krall, and a Grant Green and John McLaughlin beneath its tent. It is jazz that welcomes the better angels of creation into its realm to manifest any number of delightful and inventive manners.
Jazz, by its very nature, is evolving in four dimensions. Norah Jones, for example, with a crack band and a Country and Western sensibility, has reformed the interface between jazz and popular music. Think of Jones as Josef Haydn, a musical trailblazer inventing a new way to look at an established genre, one further perfected by Mozart's inevitable invention. Norah Jones' Mozart is Alyssa Graham.
New York native Graham and guitarist/husband Douglas Graham recorded the singer's first release in their living room on a self-produced shoestring. The result was What Love Is (2005) which was selected for several Best of 2005 lists. Graham has since honed her musical approach to a fine edge, with Echo at once pure metal and perfect amalgam.
Echo boasts a Latin influence and indeed one exists. But there is none of the piquant tartness of a typical Latin outing. Instead, the collective efforts of Jeff Haynes' essential percussion, guitarists Graham and Romero Lubambo and the Hendrik Meurkens-influenced Gregoire Maret are distilled into dense tension, sounding as if it has been there all the time. This is familiar music and that is its magic. Paul Simon's "America" is rendered as a siren song buoyed by purring congas and round nylon stings. This same formula transforms Michel LeGrand's "Once upon a Summertime" in a similar manner; quietly and with great grace.
Pianist John Cowherd shares composing duties with both Bryan McCann ("Echo" and "Arkansas") and Douglas Graham ("Pictures of You" and "My Love") to anchor the disc. "Echo" is a sophisticated vignette, a cross between Burton Cummings and Bruce Hornsby. Graham's delicious intonation is perfectly balanced by Cowherd's Norah Jones-like octaves. "Arkansas" is a potent pastoralsmart and informed and mysterious. "My Love" powerfully recalls Elton John's Tumbleweed Connection (MCA , 1971) and Jackson Browne's The Pretender (Asylum, 1976), especially in Cowherd's fine piano solo and Graham's solid high, rich alto.
Into this mix is "Involved Again." Composed by Jack Reardon ("The Good Life"), "Involved Again" was written for Billie Holiday and was slated to be recorded by her, save for the singer's death in 1959. The song remained shelved until Reardon heard Alyssa Graham. The song would have been perfect next to "I'm A Fool to Want You" and "But Beautiful," from Holiday's Lady in Satin (Columbia, 1958). Graham captures perfectly the conflict of forgiven love, totally committed at a cost. She has spent her time wisely, perfecting her art and the art that came before her. Echo is a fine wine with a heady base and nose and an expansive finish. It is to be savored after many listenings.
Personnel: Alyssa Graham: vocals; Jon Cowherd: vocals, French horn, piano, organ; Douglas Graham: guitars; Romero Lubambo: guitar; Elizabeth Lim-Dutton, Laura Seaton: violin; Lawrence Dutton: viola; Sachi Patitucci: cello; Gregoire Maret: harmonica; Doug Weiss: bass guitar; Obed Calvaire: drum; Jeff Haynes: percussion.