A treasure trove of melodic invention, distilled emotion, and vivacious wit, the American Songbook can also serve as a gilded cage, confining jazz vocalists to oft-interpreted material written during the first half of the 20th century. Sacramento jazz vocalist Beth Duncan has never been one to do things by the book, and her new album I’m All Yours exemplifies the ample creative rewards of grappling with the present moment. A collection of songs written by Oakland-based composer and lyricist Martine Tabilio, I’m All Yours is Duncan’s third release, and it’s a persuasively swinging project brimming with smart new songs that deliver many of the pleasures found in American Songbook standards. It’s also a confident and deeply satisfying statement by an artist who has come into her own at middle age.
As on her first two albums, Duncan is joined by a stellar cast of players, including pianist Joe Gilman, vibraphone legend Bobby Hutcherson’s go-to accompanist in his last years, and Australian-born multi-wind expert Jacam Manricks, who spent more than a decade in New York City recording with leading improvisers such as Tyshawn Sorey, Matt Wilson, Adam Rogers, and Gary Versace. Providing a seismic jolt to the Sacramento scene in recent years, Manricks crafted the album’s consistently arresting arrangements, while also contributing elegantly thematic solos on flute and tenor and soprano saxophone. His charts provide an array of rhythmic settings for Duncan, who imbues each piece with a lived-in narrative drive.
“There is a glut of wonderful singers doing standards albums, which makes sense because people like to latch on to things they know,” Duncan says. “But I really felt like Marty’s songs need to be heard. Her songs speak to me. She really knows how to capture feelings well and tell a story.”
Duncan and Tabilio had been hearing about each other from mutual friends for a while when they first met in 2008 and struck up a friendship. A late-blooming composer who started songwriting at 50, Tabilio had established herself on the Los Angeles scene working with top-shelf jazz artists such as Tierney Sutton, Sara Gazarek, Tamir Hendelman, Josh Nelson, and Christian Jacob. Duncan ended up recording three of Tabilio’s songs on her second album, 2012’s critically hailed Comes the Fall.
With Gilman leading a highly cohesive combo featuring guitarist Steve Homan, bassist Matt Robinson, and drummer Rick Lotter, I’m All Yours is the first album devoted to Tabilio’s songs, but it likely won’t be the last. Driven by Robinson’s buoyant bassline, the title track is a headlong declaration of devotion that leaves plenty of space for a meaty Manricks tenor solo and lithe, singing Gilman piano passage. Possessing a warm, burnished tone and a deft sense of swing, Duncan renders each phrase as part of an intoxicating tale that steadily gains momentum.