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Donna Byrne: Let's Face the Music and Dance

Mark Barnett By

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CD Capsule

Stellar renditions of jazz standards by a wonderful singer who understands the songs and extracts genuine tenderness and excitement from them. To top it off, she's surrounded by a group of jazz musicians who share her sensibility.

Background

Amid the throng of moaners, shouters and chanteuses who sing in the jazz idiom, what makes Donna Byrne stand out? After all, she's not featured in Manhattan's posh venues (she plies her trade quietly and almost exclusively in New England), and her albums are not produced (and therefore not publicized) by the major recording labels.

The answer is simple: she's a marvelous singer. On up-tempo numbers, she swings almost effortlessly, floating along over the jazz beat as though she's having a great time. On a slow ballad, she convinces you that she really understands the words (not as common as you might think among singers), and that she's aiming them straight at you. Given the right frame of mind, that can melt your heart.

But Byrne is not doing all of this alone. She's surrounded on this disc by peerless jazz musicians whose improvisations reinforce what she's singing. Soloists include Dave McKenna on piano, Gray Sargent on guitar, Herb Pomeroy on flugelhorn and Dick Johnson on alto sax and clarinet. In some of these tracks, the interplay between voice and instruments makes it seem like you're in the midst of a fine jazz combo, one of whose members happens to be a singer—and that's a lovely feeling.

Highlights

Track 1, "What a Little Moonlight Can Do"

Billie Holiday staked a claim to this tune with her 1935 recording, and it will always be hers. But Byrne's rendition, taken at a medium-fast pace with what seems like effortless intensity, ratchets things up a few notches. In the first chorus, listen for the pretty, complex guitar that backs her voice. In the second chorus, at 1:07, she pushes things further, flying along over the rhythm section, propelled by the insistent piano and guitar—everyone driving hard, yet no one straining. At 2:06, enjoy a wonderful chase chorus, in which piano and guitar alternate short improvisations, the music growing hotter and hotter as the two musicians listen to and play off one another. (If you're paying close attention, you'll hear a bit of "Sweet Lorraine" inserted in the guitar solo at 2:41.) At 3:59, Byrne returns for a rousing close.

Track 2, "Dream Dancing"

Taken at a medium pace, this nifty 1941 Cole Porter tune showcases Byrne's relaxed swing and her near-perfect pitch. To hear how she can massage a note, focus on the phrase, "what do I do?" at 0:22. Notice how she hits the note "do" by gradually sliding up to it, her voice growing fuller as she nails it smack on. The same thing happens at 0:59, in the phrase "sparkling with dew." At 2:01, a simple but beautiful piano solo that seems to extract the essence of Porter's melody, followed at 2:38 by a couple of pretty guitar and clarinet solos. The best part of this track starts at 3:57. Byrne is back, singing and swinging in loose, lovely counterpoint with flugelhorn and then clarinet. This one could have been titled "Warm Interplay."

Track 4, "Limehouse Blues"

This old jazz standard is a tour de force for Byrne and the gang, who play it three times in increasingly urgent tempos (think walk, then canter, then gallop). It opens with a brief "Oriental" piano solo ("Limehouse" refers to the Chinatown section of London), and then at 0:42, Byrne delivers a lovely, slinky-slow rendition of the tune. For a fine example of the jazz singer's art, listen to what she does with the words "old China blues" at 2:04. Round two begins at 2:40, as Byrne, swinging lightly, shifts into medium tempo. At this point, notice how nicely the alto sax fills in the gaps between her phrases. At 3:42 it's time to floor it, and the feeling changes to white hot. The words melt into a blur as the rhythm becomes faster and more insistent. At 4:11, the alto sax, until now backing Byrne breaks loose with a wild but controlled solo. At 4:41, listen for an exhilarating three-way chase chorus, in which drums, piano and guitar play round-robin. Byrne returns at 5:06 to close things out in a big way.

Track 6, "Remember Medley"

Be sure to hear "What'll I Do," the first of the three songs on this track. This simple Irving Berlin tune often comes across as over-worked and over-arranged, but Byrne gives it new life by capitalizing on its simplicity. Without melodrama, accompanied only by quiet guitar, she turns "What'll I Do" into a gentle, moving lament about how it feels to lose someone. Powerful stuff.

Track 12, "For All We Know"

Think of this one as a companion piece to "What'll I Do" (track 6). Again, Byrne weaves a web of intimacy by singing with a single instrument, a piano in this case. If "What'll I Do" speaks of irretrievable loss, "For All We Know" speaks of urgency in the face of life's randomness. And Byrne delivers it straight from the heart—without embellishment, without diva drama, and without the kind of musical and emotional protection that a band and fancy arrangements can provide. It takes courage and a fine voice to sing this way.

Track 13, "The Lonesome Road"

This 1927 song, written in the "Old Man River" genre, is certainly no jazz standard, and yet Byrne and the gang turn it into a happy, hard-driving, up-tempo piece of work. It opens with Byrne's voice accompanied only by a lightly rollicking piano. Then, with a drum roll at 0:36, the group digs in. First a nice improvisation by flugelhorn, then an equally inventive guitar solo. If you're listening closely at 1:28, you'll hear the first few bars of "Love is a Many Splendored Thing." That old warhorse never ran in such fast company. Byrne returns at 1:45 with some intense counterpoint from the flugelhorn, and it's non-stop excitement from there on out. You're sure to be tapping or snapping something by the end. Or at least smiling broadly.

Personnel: Marshall Wood: bass; Gray Sargent: guitar; Herb Pomeroy: flugelhorn; Dave McKenna: piano; Dick Johnson: alto saxophone; Jim Gwin: drums; Donna Byrne: vocal.

Title: Let's Face the Music and Dance | Year Released: 1992 | Record Label: Stash

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