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Sara Bielanski: From the Heart

Victor L. Schermer By

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This is vocalist Sara Bielanski's debut album, and for it she brought together a group of fine musicians with connections to the Berklee School of Music and The New England Conservatory, institutions where for well over more than a half-century many of our most outstanding players have gotten their jump start. Bielanski herself is a fine crossover singer and vocal teacher based in Cambridge, so the album has a touch of the sophisticated New England Back Bay feeling of those Boston Brahmin families and their Victorian homes. Gastronomically speaking, the album could be compared with a meal of salad, oysters, and steak which whet appetites in that neck of the woods.

According to the liner notes, the music is loosely based on Bielanski's personal experience with heart surgery, which must have acquainted her with mortality and darkness, although she is upbeat and optimistic on most of the tracks. Certainly, the lyrics of the ballad, "Night Lights" confess to fear and loneliness, and the singer demonstrates her ability to express subtle emotions with a dark coloration "to face the lonely night." A short improvised original song, "Scars," evokes a disturbing, dramatic, risk-taking situation like major surgery. But overall, what you experience is what you might hear in a good mainstream jazz set in a small club: great standards that cover a gamut of intimate stories and feelings.

The guiding presence at the recording sessions of up and coming vocalist, composer, and arranger Steven Santoro was an inspiration for the parsimonious and authentic approach taken by Bielanski. Pianist Mark Shilansky, bassist Chris Rathbun, and drummer Austin McMahon provide finely-tuned accompaniment and a well-crafted backdrop, allowing the singer ample room to show her wares. Pianist Shilansky does some great work on "East of the Sun (And West of the Moon)" that is reminiscent of Alan Broadbent's and Junior Mance's backing of Irene Kral in her iconic recordings of the 1970s. Bassist Chris Rathbun and drummer Austin McMahon deliver a near-perfect rhythmic pulse throughout the album.

Bielanski's interpretation of "Sweet Georgia Brown," begins with a time marking duet with bassist Rathbun and works its way up to a red-light district invitation to the boudoir. It is sung with southern inflections and flirtatious filigree that leads you to speculate that Georgia Brown, with her "too left feet but oh so sweet" is the singer herself. By thematic and stylistic contrast, the Sergio Mendez standard "So Many Stars" is done with subtlety of expression, and there is a hearfelt interlude where the singer simply speaks the words against a beautiful trio backdrop. And the rhythm section gives a Brazilian rhythmic accent to "East of the Sun (And West of the Moon)," a "just right" move which makes it seem that it could have been composed by Jobim, although it is an American songbook classic by Brooks Bowman.

Track Listing: Night Lights; Softly, As In a Morning Sunrise; Spring Will Be a Little Late This Year; East of the Sun (And West of the Moon); Sweet Georgia Brown; So Many Stars; Scars (Bielanski); Let's Do It (Let's Fall in Love).

Personnel: Sara Bielanski: vocals; Mark Shilansky: piano; Chris Rathbun: bass; Austin McMahon: drums; Steven Santoro (arrangements: tracks 1-6).

Title: From the Heart | Year Released: 2016 | Record Label: Self Produced

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