Vocalist Sara Bielanski's debut album is heartfelt in the most descriptive sense possible for being inspired by the open-heart surgery that saved her life in 2011. Bielanski, who comes from a classical background yet has always nurtured a love for jazz standards, decided it was time to let that love shine in the studio, and the results are as affirming as their catalyst was close to being fatal.
From the smoothly ushered first lines of "Night Lights," Bielanski's no-frills singing reclaims "sultry" as an adjective devoid of it sexist connotations, imbuing it instead with self-worth. A fitting resolution to this song's forlorn shadows comes in "Softly, As in a Morning Sunrise," the diurnal cast of which is mirrored in the consistency of its intepretation, which transitions evenly from darkness into light. Bielanski is an artist of great dexterity and versatility, as evidenced by the ease with which she navigates the lither acrobatics of "Spring Will Be a Little Late This Year" and the confident speech-song of "Sweet Georgia Brown." These songs pay further testament to their renowned arranger, Berklee College of Music professor Steven Santoro, whose feel for mood, time, and place makes every turn of phrase feel right at home. His arrangements of "East of the Sun (and West of the Moon)" and "So Many Stars" particularly highlight organic attractions to love and personal expression, and with a translucence of effect that allows any listener's interpretations to glow through.
And let us not forget Bielanski's backing trio, of which pianist Mark Shilansky is the soul. Shilansky's contributions give heft and verve to every song, even as his sympathetic approach remains ever-sensitive to the rhythm section's vitality. Bassist Chris Rathbun is adept at exploring even the toughest lyrical exteriors in search of vulnerable spots through which to gain emotional access, while Austin McMahon balances the sparkle of cymbals with earthy drums to keep everything in suspension. Whether in the whimsy of Cole Porter's "Let's Do It (Let's Fall in Love)" or the chromatic fascinations of the fully improvised "Scars," he anticipates every step before it touches down. As the album's most honest highlight, the latter song finds Bielanksi in an unapologetic mode. "I'm bionic and iconic," she sings, straightening a tangled web of sentiments into a macramé of synchronicity.
It's worth noting that From the Heart was also conceived as a conversation with her late father, and in that respect it succeeds beautifully as a love letter to afterlife written by one who once had her hand on its door, even as it reminds us that hers is a voice with years yet to fly, stretching its wings from one end of hope to the other.
Night Lights; Softly, As In a Morning Sunrise; Spring Will Be a Little Late
Year; East of the Sun (And West of the Moon); Sweet Georgia Brown; So
Stars; Scars (Bielanski); Let's Do It (Let's Fall in Love).
Sara Bielanski: vocals; Mark Shilansky: piano; Chris Rathbun: bass; Austin
McMahon: drums; Steven Santoro (arrangements: tracks 1-6).
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