Jazz vocalists occupy a wide swath of styles from those who mercilessly belt out a tune to those who use the ever evolving vocabulary of the jazz idiom with care and precision. Deborah Brown is one of the most sophisticated of the latter genre. She is a true artist. She never wastes a note, inflection, or dynamic. She meticulously treats the nuances of every song with the care of a concert and opera singer. Such precision only makes her more exciting to hear and never interferes with the joy she radiates. She swings magnificently and expresses feelings with the best of the jazz divas. Her panache could perhaps be compared with Betty Carter
and Carmen McRae
, but her voice and style are unmistakably her own.
Born, raised, and still rooted in Kansas City, Brown spent many years in Amsterdam and Europe singing, teaching, and learning. She has absorbed the best of both worlds, and everything she does is guided by the bebop inventions of Charlie Parker
and others from her home town, especially her long-time sidekick saxophonist Bobby Watson
. For some reason, she doesn't usually tour the U.S., so that many of us have to content ourselves with her large output of recordings, most of which are gems.
This latest album released on the Polish label Agora is a special prize, full of life, variety, mixes of instrumentation, and featuring two duets with guest vocalist Kevin Mahogany
. For backup, Brown brings together a capable quartet of European and American musicians: Sylwester Ostrowski
on tenor saxophone, Rob Bargad
on piano, Essiet Essiet
and Joris Teepe
alternating on double bass; and Newman Taylor Baker
on drums. For a string background on three tracks, she employs the services of the NFM Leopoldinum Chamber Orchestra. The result is a virtual concert of songs that cover the gamut of standards, some familiar, and some less often heard. It's just a great album that you will listen to over and over again.
The album begins with a Thelonious Monk
tune, "Ask Me Now," minus the Monk syncopation and instead swung, with a lively string background. Brown sounds a lot like early Betty Carter with a touch of Deedles (Diane Schuur
) as well. Her scatting is just perfect here and throughout the recording.
"Teach Me Tonight" is a 1950s pop song that jazz vocalists like to sing. It's fun to play around with it, so Bargad's piano introduction has a ragtime flair. Brown sings a chorus with the modesty implied in the lyrics, and Mahogany comes in with the trio. There is a fine rapport between the two singers which starts out cool and becomes hot.
The next track is a little masterpiece. "Lullaby Of Birdland" alternates fast-paced swing alternating with off- beat phrases that generate tension. In addition to Brown's scatting that could be an object lesson for all vocalists, Bargad delivers an impeccable piano solo.
"My One And Only Love" compares in its sincerity with Johnny Hartman
's version (Johnny Hartman and John Coltrane
, Impulse, 1963) The tenderness between Brown and Mahogany is highly believable as it should be.
"Before It Was Fun" is a less familiar ballad a bit like "Some Other Time" in its bemusing about hesitant love. The one glitsche is that what sounds like Brown, Mahogany, and tenor sax in unison seems gimmicky and like "smooth jazz" heavy cream in an album that is otherwise straight ahead. Ostrowsky and Bargad, however, provide elegant solos.
The title tune, "Kansas City Here I Come" is delivered in the style of legendary Count Basie singer Joe Williams
. Brown's scatting has all the excitement of a Basie instrumentalist, and she screams out the ending like Deedles might.
After a familiar rendition of the first chorus of "Summertime," the piece breaks out into double time. There is artful use of rhythmic changes, a chorus of scat and a piano solo and background using cluster chords which convey the "heat" of the summer in combinations with so much going on with the saxophone and singer.
"How Deep Is The Ocean" is an operatic tour de force, perhaps the most beautiful rendition of this standard on recording. The chamber ensemble provides a gut-wrenching string introduction followed by Brown's rendition that rivals La Boheme
in its depth of passion. Giacomo Puccini and Anna Moffo, move over.
"Pannonica" catches some of the syncopation in this Monk tune dedicated to his friend, Baroness Pannonica (Nica) von Koenigswarter, who was named after a butterfly. Brown and the arrangement effectively capture the butterfly allusion and the baroness' bohemian persona.
Finally, Brown sings the hell out of "Cry Me A River" the way Julie London did in her hit single, but, unlike the latter's version, this one has a rhythm and blues background mixed with a twist of swing. All the arrangements in the album incorporate varied idioms separately and in combination, which further spices up the action.