Barbara Sfraga "Under the Moon" at Joe's Pub

Dr. Judith Schlesinger By

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...Unlike some musicians, her improvisations draw the audience closer to her, rather than distancing them with a self-absorbed display.
Barbara Sfraga was finally exposed on August 26. After years of performing in wafting coverups, she wore a bustier at her CD release party, revealing a beautiful expanse of creamy skin. Matched with a floor-length, flowing skirt, her long blonde curls, and a hint of sparkle, she looked like a fairy princess. Her new exposure was also musical, for her latest CD, Under the Moon, for A440 Music Group, reveals her artistic soul more thoroughly than anything she's ever done.

In the five years since her well-received Naxos debut, Oh, What A Thrill, Sfraga has experienced a number of major life changes that have both inspired and supported the growth in her music. For one, she lost a long-term gig that paid her rent but deadened her creativity — a scary event at first, it turned out to be one of those cosmic course corrections that cleared the way for finding her own vision. Always imaginative, Sfraga became freer, more daring, and truer to herself.

She credits her new working band for much of this. Sfraga met Center Search Quest (bassist Christopher Dean Sullivan and drummer Michael T.A. Thompson) while jamming at the Lenox Lounge in Harlem, where she now lives. With their warm encouragement, she's pushing back the boundaries of her talent. This includes breaking out of the standard jazz-singer mold to become what she calls a "voicist": blending words and sounds to communicate more directly, on a visceral level. With an increasingly assured gracefulness, she makes every song her own — whether it's Ellington or Dylan, Hoagy Carmichael or Angela Bofil, a ballad, a burner, or anything inbetween.

To watch Sfraga perform is to witness a complete and contagious musical immersion. While her sweet, supple voice conveys the full meaning of a lyric, her body dips and sways, her fingers playing the mic as if it were a horn (or, especially on the torchier tunes, a lover). But unlike some singers, there's no contrivance involved: her movements are organic, part of her natural expressiveness. And unlike some musicians, her improvisations draw the audience closer to her, rather than distancing them with a self-absorbed display. Her sincerity is audible on Under the Moon, but it's absolutely magnetic when she's live.

Sfraga's CD release set at Joe's Pub marks yet another departure for her, since the time constraints leave little room for the generous instrumental solos that characterize her band. (The same thing happened at the J&R Music Festival at City Hall Park the previous Sunday, where she wowed the crowd and put a big grin on the face of Kent Anderson, president of A-440.) Shorter tunes put more focus on her singing, as does the artful use of lighting; part of Joseph Papp's theater complex, the room is very dark and designed as a true performance space, rather than a sociable jazz club. There's also a new touch of drama in the opening "Stardust," which begins a cappella on the CD and starts offstage tonight. Sfraga's lovely voice fills the room with "the purple dust of twilight time"; once she appears in the spotlight, the band hits, and everything goes reggae.

It's a splendid set, a CD buffet enhanced by the piano of Bill Pernice, who does a slamming solo on a newly energetic "You've Changed." Playing with tempo is a Sfraga signature — she also extracts all the customary self-pity from the song, turning it into a buoyant, samba-flavored, liberating anthem of "good riddance." "Mood Indigo" is as intimate as a tune ever gets. On the CD, it's a telepathic bass and voice duet; in this performance, Thompson adds well-placed impressionistic flutters as Sfraga sings "you ain't been blue/no/no" in her clear, whine-free voice.

My favorite selection, "Under the Moon and Over the Sky," becomes tropically primal with the addition of Sullivan's "indigenous tribal nuances"; at Joe's, purple lights along the wall increase the magic. There's a waltzing, unusually joyful "Sophisticated Lady" and a witty Sfraga original, "Never Walk Away," with its bouncy second-line groove, saucy lyrics, and a bit of mischief: the band walking away from her, one by one. "Prelude to a Kiss" is Monkish and playful, with Sfraga shmuzing the bass and drums in a musical conversation. Unfortunately, the profound and timely "Every Grain of Sand" is marred by some sudden electronic indigestion, but it stands as the moving, spiritual highlight of the CD. The set ends with a kick-butt version of "Tell Me Something Good," with Sullivan rapping a masterful chorus at the end, which hasn't been recorded, but should be. Maybe next time (Sfraga has a four-CD deal with A-440.)

The evening showcases Sfraga's versatility, as well as the advantage of having her own band behind her; Thompson, her fluid and sensitive drummer, is not on the release. (The Chicago-based label chose Paul Wertico, who won a bunch of Grammies with Pat Metheny but, to these ears, didn't really "get" Sfraga's approach.) At the same time, her music takes on new colors with the contributions of Frisell-ish guitarist John McLean in the studio and the excellent Bill Pernice in performance. Whatever the personnel, it's clear that Barbara Sfraga is a huge talent, a true musician who uses deliberation and skill as well as intuition to make her very personal and thoroughly engaging music. As Bill Milkowski says in his finely detailed liner notes," [Sfraga] is of the tradition while actively seeking to reinvent it."

You know, on second thought, that fairy princess analogy doesn't really work. Sfraga wasn't wanded by some mystical grandmother — she's worked altogether too hard to get where she is. Cinderella would be closer, but there's still no cigar, since Sfraga's spell doesn't end at midnight. It's readily available on "Under the Moon" and whenever she performs.

Under the Moon can be found at all online and brick retail outlets.

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