Vocalist Whitney James takes her rightful place among today’s great jazz singers with her stunning debut album, The Nature of Love. James blends a singer’s sensitivity to lyrics with an instrumentalist’s command of phrasing, melody, and timbre. The album’s ambitious program of material includes classics from the Great American Songbook such as Jerome Kern and Ira Gershwin’s “Long Ago and Far Away” and Irving Berlin’s “How Deep Is the Ocean,” as well as challenging jazz tunes such as Benny Golson’s “Whisper Not” and Jimmy Rowles’s “The Peacocks.”
James doesn’t just sing a tune,she creatively engages it. Every time she approaches a melody and a lyric, she finds a new way to phrase them, shape them, highlight a word or a few notes that shade the meaning and make the music richer. Her sense of time and pacing make her a consummate musician’s singer—she knows how to work with a band, instead of asking it to merely back her. Her supple alto voice wraps itself around a song like a sheer silk scarf. She sings with a bright clarity of tone, yet she colors her sound with earthy inflections, subtle squeezed notes, dark growls, and notes of soaring purity.
Her polished musicianship helps her interpret the best of American popular music as well as challenging originals of jazz composers rarely attempted by singers. The upper edge of her voice gently caresses “Tenderly,” highlighting the song’s romantic glow, then she matches trumpeter Jensen tone for tone with an instrumentalist’s full sound. She subjects “Long Ago and Far Away” to playful transformations, making the song her own without ever obscuring the composers’ original intent. She negotiates the transitions between Latin and swing beats on “How Deep Is the Ocean” with elegance, phrasing behind the beat at times to create an exquisite tension. And she remains unfazed by the tricky melody of “The Peacocks,” making the composition’s daunting contours sound graceful and natural.