No "Vanity" Here: Jackie Ryan, Denise Donatelli, Lisa Sokolov, Kat Edmonson


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One of the whinier columns ever to appear in a major jazz publication concerned "Vanity Projects"—that is, sessions bankrolled by rich men for their marginally talented spouses/girlfriends/siblings/whatever. Unfortunately, those kind of recordings do exist, and in far greater numbers than desirable. However, the author's implication was that most female vocal projects could be categorized in this manner, and that does a major disservice to the singers who are making seriously great music for the 21st century. Here are four cases in point.

Jackie Ryan


Open Art Productions


Timing is important in all things, but it was bad timing that took Jackie Ryan's latest release up a notch. Ryan had a sessionful of tunes (fueled by a hot band led by pianist Cyrus Chestnut) all ready to go back in 2006. However, that session stayed on the shelf because You, The Night and The Music (Open Art Productions, 2007) was a major sensation at the time. This gave Ryan the chance to hit the studio with those players again in 2008, this time led by Chestnut and his usual rhythm section. The final result is two discs of trad-jazz vocal bliss.

The title track is a Benny Carter tune, and Ryan owns the vocal from the jump. There's sass to her approach as she expertly rips off lyrics like a musical machine gun. Ryan's rich alto flows like melted chocolate over "Speak Low" and "Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most," and she brings the sexy to a mildly schizophrenic take on the Billie Holiday classic "I Must Have That Man." Romero Lubambo's guitar work simply completes the three bossa tunes on Doozy, two of them by (of course) Antonio Carlos Jobim. Ryan's personal liner notes not only express her love for the pieces and the Brazilian genre in general, but she also offers thoughtful interpretations of the music and lyrics.

Trumpeter Jeremy Pelt and saxman Eric Alexander do stellar work on the front line, and Chestnut is totally on his game, bringing the blues to Bobby Timmons' "Dat Dere" and crystalline perfection to the ballad "You'll See"; Chestnut's interplay with Ryan evokes Bobby Short's creative partnership with Cleo Laine. But although Chestnut is great on both the sessions that make up Doozy, the work he does with his usual partners (bassist Dezron Douglas, drummer Neal Smith) swings just a little bit more. It's true that sometimes more is...well, just more. But with two discs of Doozy, more is definitely better.

Visit Jackie Ryan on the web.

Denise Donatelli

What Lies Within

Savant Records


When What Lies Within producer/pianist Geoffrey Keezer asked Denise Donatelli what styles and arrangements she wanted, she reportedly told him, "Write whatever you want... I can basically sing anything." As the saying goes, it's not ego if you can back it up, and Donatelli most certainly does. Johnny Mercer's "My Shining Hour" flies like an eagle, with Keezer and tenor saxman Bob Sheppard firmly in the lead. Donatelli doesn't even blink. Her ear-to-ear smile is clearly audible as she makes the opening line her personal statement.

Donatelli is in the band, not with the band or singing in front of the band. She doesn't sing songs as much as she shapes them, with a big-as-all-outdoors range that is another brush for Keezer to paint with. Donatelli's dancing vocal on "Sails" adds loft to this tale of being out "in the wind, on the water," and she brings the loss of a hopeful romantic to Frankie Laine's "We'll Be Together Again and Chick Corea's "Crystal Silence." Joni Mitchell's "Be Cool" gets the smart, bluesy, hipster treatment it deserves, and Donatelli's duet with Keezer on J.J. Johnson's "This Lament" gives the album an outstanding coda.

Apart from Keezer's "Four Walls," What Lies Within is essentially a set of covers. And yet, there's no sense Donatelli is walking paths that have been traveled before. Every piece she touches has the confidence of someone who's making an initial, defining statement. Combined with Keezer's acumen as a producer and arranger, that makes for one glorious date.

Visit Denise Donatelli on the web.

Lisa Sokolov

A Quiet Thing

Laughing Horse Records


If it's imperative to understand every artist's mindset, the big clue to Lisa Sokolov lies within a dynamic solo piano take on Oscar Hammerstein's "Ol' Man River." In the middle of this live recording, Sokolov gives shout-outs to vocal legends Nina Simone, Betty Carter and Laura Nyro; Carter and Simone are considered to be two of jazz's great vocal interpreters, while singer-songwriter Nyro blazed a trail away from her initial commercial success, separating her from contemporaries like James Taylor Quartet and Joni Mitchell. In short, these three women were different from the norm, and so is Lisa Sokolov—and how.

"Different" doesn't begin to cover Sokolov's singular vocal style. Her overall attack sounds like the clones of Nellie McKay and Macy Gray had a clone of their own. What's more, Sokolov isn't satisfied with finding the heart of a song—she keeps digging until she's found viscera and marrow. Sokolov is less a singer than she is a muted trombone on "You Go to My Head"; the wide, deep sound of her voice combined with Cameron Brown's throbbing bass infinitely multiplies the desolation of Billy Strayhorn's "Lush Life"; and her a cappella take on Kander & Ebb's "A Quiet Thing" is so brave and sure, with Sokolov whispering one moment and booming the next.

The Nyro connection gets stronger on Sokolov's own compositions. The increasingly intense "She is Standing" goes deep inside the pain of someone facing a long line of stairs (literally and emotionally), and all "Dream Haiku" needs to be beat poetry is a bongo player and an espresso machine gurgling in the background. There's no way to accurately predict traditionalists' reaction to A Quiet Thing, but running and screaming are bound to be involved. And that's only one reason why this brilliant, challenging set should be considered as one of the best releases of this year.

Visit Lisa Sokolov on the web.

Kat Edmonson

Take To The Sky

Convivium Records


The easy thing to do upon first hearing Kat Edmonson's Take to The Sky is to say, "Oh, she's just imitating Billie Holiday!" That would be easy...and would miss the point by a country mile. While there are echoes of Lady Day in Edmonson's delivery, to dismiss the Austin-based singer as a mere impersonator is to discount a facility for interpretation that is every bit as insightful as Lisa Sokolov's. The difference is that Sokolov's approach is akin to a runaway chainsaw, while Edmonson's is comparable to a surgical laser.

Edmonson sings the lyrics to the Cure's "Just Like Heaven" completely straight, and that simple act of sticking to the subject matter (combined with tenor man John Ellis' "Secret Love" sub-reference) takes the song in a whole new direction. Her vocal on "Night and Day" is appropriate for a ballad, as is Kevin Lovejoy's spare piano, but bassist Eric Revis and drummer J.J. Johnson's big-beat background comes straight out of Roy Orbison's "O Pretty Woman." The slight martial beat behind Johnny Mercer's "Charade" recalls Anita O'Day's fragmented approach to "Sweet Georgia Brown," and Edmonson's torch-song twist on John Lennon's "(Just Like) Starting Over" soothes the spirit like a nice warm bath.

In an uncredited coda, Edmonson does an a cappella version of "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most." Again, she plays the material pretty much straight, but the lack of any instrumentation makes the lyrics even bleaker than usual, thus making Edmonson's approach that much more effective. In an age that gets less subtle by the minute, Take to The Sky shows a little change can go a long way. With any luck, Kat Edmonson will go that same distance, if not further.

Visit Kat Edmonson on the web.

Tracks and Personnel


Tracks: CD1: Doozy; You'll See; Caminhos Cruzados; Do Something; With the Wind and the Rain in Your Hair; Speak Low; I Must Have That Man; Dat Dere; Beautiful Moons Ago; My How the Time Goes By. CD2: Opportunity Please Knock; I Haven't Got Anything Better to Do; Brigas Nunca Mais/A Felicidade; Spring Can really hang You Up The Most; Solamente Una Vez; Summer Serenade; Get Rid of Monday; Midnight Sun; Tell Me More and More and Then Some; Some Other Time.

Personnel: Jackie Ryan: vocals; Cyrus Chestnut: piano; Romero Lubambo: guitar; Eric Alexander: tenor sax; Jeremy Pelt: trumpet/flugelhorn; Dezron Douglas: bass (CD1: 1, 2, 7, 9; CD2: 6, 7); Ray Drummond: bass (all other tracks); Neal Smith: drums (CD1: 1, 2, 7, 9; CD2: tracks 6, 7); Carl Allen: drums (all other tracks).

What Lies Within

Tracks: My Shining Hour; Sails (Velas Icadas); Crystal Silence; I Love It When You Dance That Way; We'll Be Together Again; Like An Old Song; Beloved (Daahoud); Four Walls; Be Cool; Make This City Ours Tonight; This Lament.

Personnel: Denise Donatelli: vocals; Bob Sheppard: soprano sax (3), alto sax (2, 4) tenor sax (1, 6, 7), flute & alto flute (3); Carl Saunders: trumpet (4, 9), flugelhorn (4); Geoffrey Keezer: piano, marimba (6), vibraphone (9), percussion (4, 6); Carlos del Rosario: organ (8), tuned Viennese gong (6); Peter Sprague: guitar (1, 2, 4, 7, 8, 10); Hamilton Price: bass (1-10); Alex Acuna: percussion (2, 8); Giovanna Clayton: cello (8).

A Quiet Thing

Tracks: My One and Only Love; Succatash; You Go To My Head; You're All That I Need to Get By; Lush Life; Kol Nidre; Ol' Man River; Dream Haiku; She is Standing; El Silencio; Walk in beauty; A Quiet Thing.

Personnel: Lisa Sokolov: vocals, piano; Cameron Brown: bass (2, 5, 9); Gerry Hemingway: drums (2, 9); Todd Reynolds: violin (2, 9, 10); Kermit Driscoll: electric bass (4); Jake Sokolov-Gonzalez: cello (6); John diMartino: piano (3, 8).

Take To The Sky

Tracks: Summertime; Just Like Heaven; Night and Day; Charade; Lovefool; Angel Eyes; Just One of Those things; One Fine Day; (Just Like) Starting Over; Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most.

Personnel: Kat Edmonson: vocals; Kevin Lovejoy: piano; Eric Revis: bass; J.J. Johnson: drums (1-7); Chris Lovejoy: percussion; Ron Westray: trombone (1, 5, 8), euphonium (5); John Ellis: tenor sax (2, 7), bass clarinet (4); Donald Edwards: drums (8).

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