Before she recorded her last album Blues In The Night: Songs by Harold Arlen, Anne Burnell, one of Chicago’s most versatile live performers, followed a classic roadmap paying lush tribute to a legend. The collection was an NPR and jazz radio sensation across the U.S., and was played internationally on Jazz & Blues Tour Radio, Amsterdam and Canada and – testament to its “cool” factor with young tastemakers hit the Top Ten on the CMJ charts. Anne’s latest, the gloriously diverse and whimsically titled Summer Days & Dreamy Nights, celebrates not a single composer but a singular friendship between the singer/songwriter and renowned Windy City based jazz guitarist Henry Johnson, who produced, arranged and plays electric and acoustic throughout the 13 track set. She met Johnson three years ago at Andy’s Jazz Club during one of the many gigs she played there with her husband and frequent musical partner, pianist and vocalist Mark Burnell. They struck up an immediate friendship and had a feeling they would soon be collaborating on a project.
Johnson’s resume of legends he has recorded or performed with includes Ramsey Lewis, Nancy Wilson, Jimmy Smith, Jack McDuff and Donny Hathaway. In addition to performing at jazz clubs and festivals in Chicago, Pittsburgh, NYC and other cities, singing cabaret and participating in tribute theatre concerts, Anne is a nationally renowned Pilates trainer, specializing in Peyow Aqua Pilates. Once they started working together, Johnson became familiar with two of her earlier albums. “He liked the way I was singing more funky stuff, mixing jazz and older pop tunes, and there was a quality in my voice then that he wanted me to go back to. The new album began organically, the way any collaborators would explore a fresh relationship. Over time, he broke down some of the vocal habits I had acquired. Before we started recording, Henry and I did a lot of exploring and rehearsing. He was an incredible vocal coach, and helped me strengthen my voice and free it up to be more flexible. Even the musicians on my gigs started noticing!”
Excited about the liberation of Anne’s vocal palette and newfound emotional dynamics, she and Johnson sought the perfect blend of material to showcase her evolving artistry. The resulting collection is cleverly divided three ways. One third of Summer Days & Dreamy Nights is her beautiful and heartfelt original material, highlighted by the balmy, percussive and brass-fired romance “San Juan” and “Right By You,” a soulful, easy strutting gem penned by Anne and Mark, who plays piano on seven tracks. The second third is a mix of crafty re-imaginings of well-known songs, including an elegantly jazzy, slowly simmering “Close To You,” a lighthearted, a coolly wistful turn on Gershwin’s “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” and the lively jazz-soul twist on “Goin’ Out Of My Head” that closes the set. Johnson’s vast knowledge of music helped drive the selections of the final third of the project, covers of songs that are so obscure the listener might think they’re brand new. These include two beautiful Henry Mancini pieces, the lush and caressing “Dreamsville” (from the “Peter Gunn” TV series) and a lively samba flavored take on “Moment To Moment,” featuring lyrics by Johnny Mercer. The soulful purity of Anne’s voice also shines through on Irving Berlin’s “I Got Lost In His Arms” from the musical “Annie Get Your Gun.” Anne also swings brilliantly through “The Best Things in Life Are Free,” a tune from 1927; Johnson’s deft arrangement includes explosive solos by tenor saxophonist Eric Schneider and trumpeter Corey Wilkes. Also helping bring Anne and Henry’s distinctive and beautiful vision of Summer Days & Dreamy Nights to life is the alternately powerful and subtle rhythm section of bassist Joshua Ramos and drummer Charles Heath III, both of whom tour regularly with Johnson as part of Ramsey Lewis’ band.