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Judy Wexler: Back to the Garden

Richard J Salvucci BY

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Judy Wexler: Back to the Garden
Man, if you can pick a tougher project to sell to an aging Boomer than Judy Wexler's Back to the Garden, then you will have to say what it might be. For a lot of the Swinging and Breathing Elderly, this music is intensely personal. Not just where were you, or who were you with? But what were you doing? And most of all, why? Not everyone was a protester or a demonstrator, much less a hippie. Not everyone made it to Woodstock. Not everyone wanted to go. Inevitably, though, everyone is young once, and the emotional connection they make to the music they hear, sing or imagine is reliably intense. And the times of Back to the Garden were possibly more intense than most. Perhaps until very recently, the most intense this generation had experienced. There was a lot in the balance then, including for many, life or death, maybe in a jungle that had nothing to do with existence in a mill town, an urban ghetto, or on a farm somewhere. The music was part of everyone's narrative. From "We Got to Get Out of This Place" to "White Rabbit," everyone knew someone who had a story, or claimed to, explicit or not. "No one here gets out alive," said Jim Morrison. Everyone nodded in agreement, although very few would know exactly what that meant. "The Times," Dylan sang, "They Are A-Changing." Wexler, who takes up the challenge of recasting this tune for a different age, must remember, too. Otherwise, the recording would not work, and work it does. It effectively addresses what could be called the Miles Davis question: "So What?" Why revisit the past when everyone knows what's there? To reinterpret it, that's why, especially when its implications have become clear in a way that they could not have been at the time.

Wexler might normally be thought of as a jazz singer, and a very good one, with an impressive discography. Her interpretation of "An Occasional Man" rivals Cheryl Bentyne's for its wry humor, and if there is better version of "Pent-Up House," it would be hard to name. Hearing songs that are —a mix of folk, rock and jazz—more associated with now disappeared clubs like The Main Point, can take you by surprise. Just what does Wexler bring to these tunes, some of them, like "For What It's Worth," an emblem of an era of protest? It is uncanny how some have gone back to them during the Trump administration, which Wexler characterizes as one of "misinformation, mendacity, and extreme polarization." Sometimes, the old songs are a reminder of how resistant to change the deep foundations of American society are.

Let us start with "Big Yellow Taxi." Joni Mitchell, of course, accompanied herself on acoustic guitar. She was sweetly didactic, as if the results of "progress" had caught her (and her Old Man) by surprise. Wexler, on the other hand, is raucous and seemingly more exasperated than ironic. Danny Janklow's tart sax accompaniment changes the mood entirely, almost saying, "Yeah, whatever" in the background. The effect is entirely different. You felt sorry for Mitchell, but you would not want to get in a brawl with Wexler. "Get Together" formed the backdrop to so many folky religious services in the seventies that it is easy to be cynical about it. Love your brother, and then Bingo at 8 PM. Wexler's is more like Yellowjackets meet The Youngbloods. "Up on the Roof" is classic R&B, at least Little Cooper and the Drifters' version, that morphs into something rather different, polyrhythmic as Jeff Colella helps take it out. Very different feel.

Who knows what Muse prompted Wexler to pick Bob Dylan, "The Times They Are A-Changin," but it is a little eerie:

Come senators, congressmen, please heed the call. Don't stand in your doorway, don't block up the hall. For he that gets hurt, will be he who has stalled. 'Cause the battle outside that is ragin,' Will soon shake your windows and rattle your walls. For the times they are a-changin.'

Admittedly, Dylan's style was not for everyone. But his lyrics lose nothing of their power in Wexler's reading. In fact, her voice is insistent where Dylan's was, for want of a better word, simply grating. How do you want your truth? Forced down your throat? Then Dylan: All the way. Storytelling? Wexler. What works today may or may not have worked back then. Or vice versa. You must decide. Some listeners will like it; Dylan purists might not. The same for "Forever Young." Composed as a lullaby, it still moves a lot of young parents to tears. The song really gets extended treatment here with background vocals and interwoven guitar, bass, drums and background vocals. It is long (6:10) and elaborate. Again, Dylan fans may or may not approve. De gustibus, as they say.

The mood changes dramatically with Judy Collins' "Since You've Asked." This is an exquisite song, covered by Jane Monheit and Dan Fogelberg, awfully stiff competition. This is possibly incorrect, but Wexler's version feels double-timed, so suddenly, a dreamy love song gets a bit urgent and goes somewhere else here. You start thinking "The Waste Land," "Hurry Up, Please It's Time." Intentional?

Fairport Convention's "Who Knows Where the Time Goes" is another lovely, bittersweet song. Wexler's pellucid voice is utterly captivating here, and is Jay Jennings soaring trumpet solo that works beautifully as a coda.

This is a startling recording. If you assume that Judy Wexler should be singing "Whisper Not" rather than "Who Knows Where The Time Goes," you 're missing out on some extraordinary music. If you are accustomed to the originals, having overlearned them 30 or 40 years ago, you may have to listen a few times before you understand the originality and novelty of the approach. If an aging Boomer can get it, someone with younger, open ears certainly will. The recording is a real success.

Track Listing

Get Together; Up on the Roof; American Tune; Big Yellow Taxi; The Times They Are A- Changin'; Since You Asked; For What It's Worth; Everybody's Talkin'; Forever Young; Who Knows Where the Time Goes.

Personnel

Judy Wexler: voice / vocals; Jeff Colella: piano; Larry Koonse: guitar; Gabe Davis: bass, acoustic; Steve Hass: drums; Bob Thiele, Jr,: guitar, electric; Erin Bentlage: voice / vocals; Danny Janklow: saxophone; Jay Jennings: trumpet; Hendrik Meurkens: harmonica; Sara Caswell: violin; Joel Pargman: violin; Carrie Kennedy: violin; rodney wirtz: viola; Stephanie Fife: cello; Talley Sherwood: voice / vocals.

Album information

Title: Back to the Garden | Year Released: 2021 | Record Label: Jewel City Jazz

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