There is always a moment of trepidation when a jazz legend produces a new record after an absence of several years; a fear that what is will diminish the memory of what was. Thankfully, that is not the case with Haunted Heart, Chris Connor’s wonderful new CD on the HighNote label.
Vocally, the 73-year old singer sounds far younger than her chronological age. Ms. Connor’s voice has dropped noticeably in pitch over the last 30 years. However, she has compensated for the loss of her top notes with superb control over a warm and evocative lower register. Whereas in the 1950s and 1960s, she seemed to attack her material, Ms. Connor now sings from a calm, focused center. The tense energy of her youth has given way to a quiet confidence.
Pianist Mike Abene has drawn on his decades long association with Ms. Connor to craft smart, uncluttered arrangements that play to her strengths. Drummer Dennis Mackrel’s sure touch keeps the rhythm section humming along while Ingrid Jensen on trumpet and flugelhorn and Bill Easley on reeds prove to be much more than special guest soloists. Whether it’s playing unison passages, filling in behind the vocalist or taking extended solos, both Ms. Jensen and Mr. Easley fully integrate themselves into the ensemble. Ms. Jensen, in particular, displays exquisite tonal control and a truly distinctive voice.
However, Ms. Connor’s vast experience is the fulcrum on which Haunted Heart is balanced. The disc opens with a defiantly up-tempo “By Myself” that finds the singer’s formidable command of time undiminished. Nowhere is her lower register better showcased than on “Snowfall,” a composition by her old boss, pianist and bandleader, Claude Thornhill. Ms. Connor shapes the piece as a tone poem with her rich low notes juxtaposed against Mr. Easley’s fluid flute lines. “Day In, Day Out” and Benny Carter’s “Key Largo” (erroneously attributed to Schwartz & Dietz in the CD booklet) have been in Ms. Connor’s “book” for years, but her performances here show no signs of simply going through the motions.
Ms. Connor’s engagement with the material comes through most powerfully on the ballads. Without the use of any discernable dramatic devices, she sharpens the edges on lyrics, and, bypassing sentimentality, uses them to cut away at real emotions. “Haunted Heart” and “Only the Lonely” are masterpieces of unaffected communication. “Stairway to the Stars” and Johnny Mercer and Doris Tauber’s too-rarely heard gem “Drinking Again” are nearly as great.
Haunted Heart is probably Chris Connor’s finest album since 1986’s Classic. It is a compelling and deeply satisfying record by a singer who long ago earned her place in the pantheon of great jazz singers.
Personnel: Chris Connor: vocals; Mike Abene: piano and arranger; Ingrid Jensen: trumpet and flugelhorn; Bill Easley: tenor saxophone and flute; Dennis Mackrel: drums; Chip Jackson: bass; Steve Laspina: bass.