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Judy Wexler: Crowded Heart

Dan Bilawsky By

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For her fifth album, Judy Wexler has embraced a concept that's oddly foreign in the jazz vocal realm. Instead of walking her way down the all-too-familiar avenues for singers—classic Broadway-cum-jazz material, canonical works written by revered jazz figures, pop tunes reshaped with harmonic facelifts, self-penned originals—she takes the road less traveled by focusing on the work of jazz composers thriving in the present. In doing so she magnifies the importance of these artists, highlights material worthy of greater attention, and elevates her own standing as a gifted stylist and interpreter.

Wexler winds her way through this series of new jazz standards with comfort and ease, telling stories and shaping melodies with smarts and sophistication. Whether exploring love's various shades and shapes, peeling back the many layers of emotion in the human experience, moving deftly through simile and metaphor, or unpacking day-to-day life in all its turbulence, she remains a font of feeling and truth.

Working closely with pianist Alan Pasqua, her longtime musical partner and co-producer/arranger on this project, Wexler manages to inhabit these songs and deal with them on her own terms while still remaining true to the source material. That's apparent right from the start, as she steps into a world of Luciana Souza's making for "Circus Life." The adrenaline rush and buoyancy of the original prove influential, but there's added weight and poignancy in Wexler's performance. She doesn't simply work from the mold here, and this performance is all the richer because of that fact.

There are times and places where Wexler and Pasqua choose to create by ironing out some aspects of the model—Gregory Porter's "Painted On Canvas," for example, is coolly paved in 4/4 here—but they're just as quick to uncover or explore an illustrative wrinkle heretofore unseen. That point shows true and clear on "It's Only Smoke," a Larry Goldings original with lyrics penned by Cliff Goldmacher. Rather than wring sentiment from Goldmacher's pen, Wexler lets his words and Goldings' melody shine under the light of their inherent beauty. She reminds us that sometimes a song just needs to be appreciated, not mined.

In choosing to explore the work of artists like Porter, Souza, Kurt Elling, and Rene Marie, Wexler shows a fondness for individualism and demonstrates a keen ear for strong material. That gift is not terribly surprising, given her sterling reputation and high standing in the vocal community, but it still deserves to be noted.

Track Listing: Circus Life; Parisian Heartbreak; Crowded Heart; Painted On Canvas; Stars; The Last Goodbye; Take My Breath Away; I Took Your Hand; It's Only Smoke; And We Will Fly.

Personnel: Judy Wexler: vocals; Alan Pasqua: piano, melodica (2), whistling (1); Larry Koonse: guitar; Josh Johnson: alto saxophone; Bob Sheppard: alto flute; Stefanie Fife: cello; Darek Oles: bass; Steve Hass: drums; Aaron Serfaty: percussion.

Title: Crowded Heart | Year Released: 2019 | Record Label: Jewel City Jazz

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