In most cases standards either serve as magnifying glasses, quickly revealing technical deficiencies, or as buoys offering support for performers gifted with technical skill but little creative ingenuity.
In the rarest of cases, however, standards can act as reflecting pools for an artist’s full range of abilities, and such is the case with Barbara Sfraga’s latest release, Under The Moon.
Not only does Sfraga include a daunting array of pieces, such as the oft-performed classics "Mood Indigo," "Stardust Memories," and "Sophisticated Lady," she approaches each with a passionate dedication to reinvention. Sfraga’s minimalist reconfigurations simultaneously whittle each of the album’s ten tracks down to their emotional and musical cores, while building a dramatic atmosphere of subtlety and cleverness.
Not essentially an avant-gardist, Sfraga ensures that her explorations never approach the experimental limits of singer Devorah Day’s recent release, nor the genre-blurring work of Patricia Barber. Instead, by attempting to maintain the source material’s original conception while providing new structures to house it, Sfraga accomplishes something equally intriguing.
Unfortunately, not all of Sfraga’s experiments are entirely successful. Tunes like the too clever "I’ve Grown Accustomed to His Face" and a mundane reading of "You’ve Changed" keep the album from being the milestone its stronger pieces suggest it could have been. That said, when Sfraga peaks, the results are gripping. Her floating, lilting version of "Stardust" is not only full of unexpected twists – an impressive feat considering the popularity of the piece – but also so successfully reframes the original that Carmichael’s lyric gains new depths of meaning.
In fact, that is what Sfraga does best. By locating the emotive source and finding new angles of access, she consistently focuses the listener on the energy of the original work. It is often pleasantly difficult to discern whether Sfraga has simply revitalized a tune or founded new levels of meaning through her arrangements. This phenomena is most pronounced in her rendition of "Stardust," as well as on Ellington’s "Prelude to a Kiss" and "Mood Indigo." These three tracks alone make the album recommended listening – and the surprise highlight, a wrenching bass-vocal duet performance of Bob Dylan’s "Every Grain of Sand," pushes it over the edge into a must for fans of minimalism and the poetry of lyrics.
Personnel: Barbara Sfraga: Vocals;
John McLean: Guitars;
Paul Wertico: Drums;
Christopher Dean Sullivan: Acoustic Bass, Indigenous Tribal Nuances;
Kevin Patrick: Percussion.