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Sarah Partridge: Bright Lights & Promises: Redefining Janis Ian

Dan Bilawsky By

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How did nobody think to go here before? With a glut of fine Joni Mitchell tributes on the market and a couple of engrossing Laura Nyro nods out there, how is it that no creative spirits in the jazz or cabaret camps thought to make the full-on jump to Janis Ian before now? Hearing Sarah Partridge dig into Ian's body of work makes this concept seem like a no-brainer—an incredibly natural fit, in fact—but that may very well have more to do with Partridge's vision and interpretive brilliance than it does with the material penned by the honoree.

Nobody familiar with Ian's oeuvre would argue against saluting her work, but the folk-ish qualities that carry her musical art, whether materializing through a flower power lens or tackling life's truest cruelties, don't necessarily call out for jazz rewrites. Fortunately, that didn't stop Sarah Partridge from pursuing this project. After connecting with Ian, she couldn't get the idea out of her head. She may have had her doubts about where she could go with the music, but those doubts didn't deter her one bit. Partridge's worries ultimately proved unfounded, as she put together a compelling program that touches on different facets and eras of Ian's career. It's neither disloyal to the originals nor congruent with them. It exists in its own space, leaning on the everlasting songs of Janis Ian while resting atop Partridge's firm artistic footing.

The playlist includes nuggets from the hippie days of the '60s, bluesy fare from the '70s, latter day works penned in the past two decades, and a pair of songs co-written by Partridge and Ian just for the occasion. Ian's best known work makes the cut, as it should, and it simultaneously fulfills and defies expectations. "Society's Child," for example, seems to merge the aesthetics of Steely Dan and Joni Mitchell without losing an ounce of its eye-opening purpose, and "At Seventeen" glides along in seven on an airy cloud while Partridge presents the song's bitter pill realizations with incredible poise. Both are highlights, but it's almost wrong to call out any individual songs for special praise. All thirteen tracks work beautifully. What's not to love with an album that includes a samba-fied "Calling Your Name," a soulful "Belle Of The Blues," a hard swinging "Silly Habits," a blues-drenched "Bright Lights & Promises," and a newly-penned "A Quarter Past Heartache" with Ian herself joining in?

One of Ian's chief gifts has always been her ability to mine the world's depressive truths and show us the horrors of reality. That certainly isn't lost on Partridge. In collaborating with Ian to create "Somebody's Child," a piece that touches on the understanding that the homeless and helpless of the world were once the young and innocent children of mothers and fathers, and in covering the chilling "Matthew," a song about the beating and killing of Matthew Shepard, Partridge follows Ian's path and makes us confront subjects that are often far too difficult to discuss. The same holds true with several other songs that receive emotionally reverberant interpretations—"Tattoo" and the aforementioned "Society's Child," most notably.

The musicianship here is superb throughout—you shouldn't expect anything less when Tim Horner is driving from the drums, Scott Robinson is covering reeds, Allen Farnham is manning the keys and arranging the material, and other heavy hitters are in the mix—and Partridge hits a bull's-eye on every single song. She can scat, strut, soar, and tear your heart and soul to shreds without ever breaking a sweat. She's that good, these performances are that memorable, and this album is most certainly one for the ages.

Title: Bright Lights & Promises: Redefining Janis Ian | Year Released: 2017 | Record Label: Origin Records

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