I approached Shelley Neill's latest with very positive expectations after reading all positive reviews for her previous work ( Diaphonous Apertures,
1996; Music Sweet Music,
1999; and The Blues Run Through It,
2001). Neill is an acquired taste: in some of her performances are passable, some are pretty decent and others are irritating.
Shelley Neill, a Boston singer and teacher, has made four albums on her own Cobalt Blue label. She emphasizes a blues approach to her jazz vocals and her husky voice reminds me of the adventurous aspect of Jay Clayton and the drama of Morgana King. The musicians on board here, and on her previous albums as well, are all quite good. Violinist John Blake did a fair amount of cutting-edge fusion for Gramavision in the late '80s; and Laszlo Gardony's piano work for Antilles, during the same time period, had a distinct Bill Evans influence. Yaron Israel has been a drummer of choice during the latter half of the '90s. This combo boosts the musical level of this album and often is the salvation of these sessions.
The ten tracks are well chosen from The Great American Songbook mixed with blues and RnB tunes. Neill is at her best when she performs the songs directly and doesn't stray from the melody line on "I'll Close My Eyes," "Am I Blue," or the blues standard "Empty Bed Blues." On these tunes, Blake lends strong support with either violin solos or providing a counterpoint for Neill's vocals.
On the Charlie Parker/Eddie Jefferson composition "Now's The Time," the melody is shattered by Neill's staccato delivery. The lyrical message is delivered atonally, saved only by the work of Blake and Gardony. After a long and tasty bass intro by Lockwood on Harry Warren's "At Last," Neill enters and slavishly offers a copy of the noted Etta James version. This song has been around since the Swing Era, and other than James' 1961 version, there are plenty of noteworthy versions.
Long associated with Billie Holiday, the ballad "Don't Explain" is here given an up-tempo reading with a jagged vocal delivery that doesn't work. "Something's Got A Hold On Me," another R&B staple, also recorded by Etta James and many others, is another tune that evokes soulfulness. Here, it sounds like a lounge act at the Holiday Inn where you're sitting at the bar waiting for the rain to stop outside. Finally, Harold Arlen's "It Was Written In The Stars," a very pretty ballad, is given a fragmentary delivery that is mercifully brief. Listen to Bill Charlap's piano trio version instead. It will make you cry.
Jazz history is full of blues vocalists who sing jazz and vice versa. Although some of these tracks are satisfactory, I think we'll see better from Neill in the future.
Personnel: Shelley Neill,vocals; John Blake Jr, violin; Laszlo Gardony, piano; John Lockwood,bass; Yoron Israel,drums