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The word “armonica” has two meanings, both relating to music. An armonica is a glass harmonica (which, interestingly, was invented by Benjamin Franklin) and it is also the Italian word for “harmony.” So Armonica, the Portland-based singer, has the perfect name to accompany her marvelous singing. By the way, this is not a name that she chose to enhance her musical career. Her parents so named her.
Armonica opens her stellar debut CD with a bouncy reading of Peggy Lee’s noted song, “I Love Being Here With You,” and she sounds like she means it, singing with much naturalness and joy. Some of the best cuts on this debut album are just Armonica’s lovely rich alto and Dan Balmer’s guitar. One example is the delightful reading of Hoagy Carmichael’s “The Nearness of You,” and one of the best versions of the newest of standards, “Estate.” But the centerpiece, at least to my ears, is the five-minute “After Hours,” a noirish ballad of love and obsession, by Roz Gordon. Armonica goes beyond the notes and uses her musical understanding to bring an after-hours feline grace and relaxed ambience to this lovely but lonely song. She brings impassioned identification to Gordon’s lyrics, making it poetry, all aided and abetted by Balmer’s sublime guitar. This cut alone is worth the cost of the CD. However, Armonica shows that she can also swing on a wonderfully arranged “Lullaby of the Leaves.” Each selection is a gem but mention should be made of Abbey Lincoln’s “Bird Alone.” The song and Armonica’s interpretation are both works of pristine beauty.
Armonica is surrounded by gifted fellow musicians, many from the Portland area, including the previously mentioned Dan Balmer, who is arguably the premier guitarist in the Northwest jazz scene. Bassist Ben Wolfe is known nationally for his work with Wynton Marsalis and Diana Krall, just to cite two well-known collaborations. Pianist Tony Pacini has played with reedman Bud Shank and vocalist, Rebecca Kilgore amongst many others. Together, these consummate artists provide wonderful support for Armonica’s debut.
Like the very best of jazz singers, Armonica does not try to be a horn, but rather phrases and swings with the suppleness of a horn, while giving attention to the text and telling the story. Her technique, luminous and lovely voice, and her interpretive depth should give her great staying power. I look forward to many more CDs from Armonica, a young artist of considerable stature.