When Joe Williams puts his imprimatur on an unknown singer and uses his considerable influence to give her career a boost, it's worth paying close attention. The unknown singer (and violinist) in question is named Nicole Yarling and Williams not only sponsored her debut album, he lent his majestic voice to the project in what's billed as his final recording before his death last March 29.
As for Yarling, it's clear from the first notes of Joe Williams Presents... why the old master took her under his wing. Along with the requisite technical skills, a sweet, smooth voice and plenty of vocal range, she has that ineffable quality that makes good performers great ones: charisma. The sheer sense of joy she imparts in her singing - something Joe Williams always projected - is irresistible. And though she's making her debut as a jazz recording artist, she's no beginner. With years of training and singing in night clubs, as well as some high-profile pop gigs (she sang with Jimmy Buffett's band for several years), Yarling knows how to deliver a song with confidence and style.
While she seems most at home in a loose, soul-funk vein - check her no-holds-barred take on Eddie Harris' "Freedom Jazz Dance" - Yarling can also get straight to the heart of classic ballads like "My One and Only Love." She even contributes two fine, poetic original compositions to the proceedings, and provides some nice fills and solos on the violin.
But the album's real magic happens when Williams joins Yarling for a staggering duet of "Blame It On My Youth." To Yarling's credit, she holds her own with Williams, whose humor, wisdom and impeccable timing draw out all the subtle meanings of the lyrics. If that's not enough, Williams sticks around for three more bonus cuts, closing, poignantly, with a slow, gorgeous reading of "After You've Gone." A perfect coda for a wonderful album and a great, great artist.