I first caught Jackie Allen ten or twelve years ago when she was working a lounge in Milwaukee with keyboardist Mel Rhyne. She was obviously a "natural," as talented and hip as she was wide-eyed and innocent (with a Wisconsin wholesomeness). As this album will attest, she's wiser and more seasoned, and she's definitely outgrown Milwaukee.
Jackie Allen has a vocal quality to die for: it's warm, breathy, and sultry in the middle register, retains its lightness in the low tones but blossoms radiantly in the upper register (she must have a good three octaves at her disposal). The contour of her instrument is even: there are no detectable "breaks" between a chest and head voice, and there's never a sense that she's favoring a "comfort zone" of pitches. Yet she manages to impress with her vocal strengths without seeming to try.
There's an inherently folkish timbre to Allen's tones. Thank God she chooses, for the most part, to eschew that genre per se (which the employment of guitar could make even more tempting).
Bill Evans demonstrated that, separated from its original context, Paul Simon's music ("I Do It for Your Love") could be transformed into something sublime. Unfortunately, Allen doesn't make the same case for Simon's "Still Crazy." Also, the meterless treatment of Bacharach's "This Guy's in Love with You" risks rigor mortis, especially when guitarist Moulder lays out on the fills. And Allen's "One Mint Julep" is likely to leave a hangover with its distorted guitar, shot-and-a-beer treatment.
But the other eight tracks are all winners: there's no better voice than Allen's for making "Come Fly with Me" an exotic trip to the South Seas, for executing the pyrotechnical phrasing of "Spain," for scatting good-naturedly on "You Could Be Fred," or restoring a pristine pathos to Mercer's lyric for "Fools Rush In."
This is probably Jackie Allen's best all-around album to date. Hearing her with this ensemble live, I realized what a strong stage presence she has, despite an occasionally shaky presentation. In these post- Fitzgerald, post-Vaughan times, it must be tough to convince yourself you're the "star" and that your musicians are accompanists, not co-equals. The vocalist can afford to restrict both their solos and the mentioning of their names. And when the audio balance is off (most frequently, with overly amplified bass), a glare or quick comment in the direction of the offending player or board operator can earn her important extra space. But in terms of this excellent CD, the advantage is all in the listener's favor.
Personnel: Jackie Allen, vocals; John Moulder, guitar; Hans Sturm, bass; Dane Richeson, percussion; Ben Lewis, piano;
Orbert Davis, trumpet; Kurt Elling, vocal.