Northern Voices: Heather Bambrick and Brenda Earle Stokes

Dan Bilawsky By

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There's a vast array of notable singers that have been given unto us from the Great White North. In terms of star power you have Joni Mitchell, k.d. Lang, Sarah McLachlan, Shania Twain, Bruce Cockburn, the lovably twangy Neil Young and a croaky Leonard Cohen. And, of course, we have genre-straddling, jazz-breathing mega-names like Michael Buble and Diana Krall. But then there's also a brilliant vein of today's vocal jazz figures—Susie Arioli, Laila Biali, Emilie-Clare Barlow, Amy Cervini, Sophie Milman, Diana Panton Melissa Stylianou, and Elizabeth Shepherd among them—who originally hail from beautiful Borealia (or still live there). Each one of those artists has made a real name for themselves and a place for their art, carving out their own niche within the jazz community at large, and the same can be said for Heather Bambrick and Brenda Earle Stokes, two figures worthy of attention and discussion.

Heather Bambrick
Fine State
Self Produced

The fourth proper solo date from this Toronto-based vocalist is an expertly plotted affair that's as notable for its sharp production values as it is for its performances. Across a baker's dozen of beauties, Bambrick beckons with a voice that's as warm and inviting as it is honest. Opening on co-producer Ben Wittman's shiver-inducing arrangement of "You've Got To Be Carefully Taught," she immediately finds herself in a charged atmosphere that cuts to the core of hand-me-down prejudice and racism. It's a classic commentary that, sadly, remains relevant. Then Bambrick shows how easily she can shift gears. The lighthearted "Take The B Train" finds her exploring the track less traveled with some help from Kelly Jefferson's exuberant saxophone. "It's Beautiful" lives up to its name with sunny suggestions. "It Never Entered My Mind" makes a cool impression as a dreamy meditation on loneliness and love, complete with Chase Sanborn's comforting flugelhorn contributions. And "Wave Over Wave" blends folk tidings and sea songs with a contemporary jazz sensibility.

While the bulk of the program is given over to smartly retooled covers, Bambrick shows off her writing chops through a pair of co-written originals at the midpoint of the album. "Off My List," the first of the two, talks about finding love and removing names from the old black book; and "Homeland," which directly follows, plays as a pop-tinged tribute to the northern realm. What remains beyond that point, like what came before it, is a real stylistic mixture artfully tied together. Sanborn returns for Bambrick's easygoing take on Milton Nascimento's "Bridges." Bite meets gloss on Michael Shand's arrangement of Phil Collins' "I Don't Care Anymore." The subject of equal rights in love and marriage comes to the surface on "The Right To Love." And Bambrick and company shuffle along with glee on Donald Fagen's "Walk Between The Raindrops." Then it all comes to an end with nostalgia and lamentation on "Pat Murphy's Meadow" and the grooving charms of "Fine State Of Affairs." Through it all, Bambrick's confident yet confidential tone carries the day.

Brenda Earle Stokes
Solo Sessions Volume 1
Self Produced

Canadian pianist-vocalist Brenda Earle Stokes has been based in New York for quite some time, but Solo Sessions Volume 1 sends her back to her point of origin. Recorded in a single, four-hour session at the public library in Stokes' hometown of Sarnia (in Ontario), it finds her singing and playing many-splendored songs between the stacks. As with Bambrick, Stokes has real range making her capable of successfully corralling everything from originals to standards to outliers under a single banner. But Solo Sessions Volume 1, unlike Fine State, isn't a production piece. This music oozes naked charm, as it's just the pure sound of one woman with a microphone and a piano. It's, to label it with an oxymoron, attractively unadorned.

While the idea of this project is simple enough, and Stokes isn't one for flash or fire, this music still speaks to artistic sophistication while addressing the quiet comforts of the medium. The gentle breeziness of "If You Never Come To Me" (a.k.a. "Inútil Paisagem")" serves as the perfect opener for a project that uses intimacy and nonchalance as calling cards. Stokes' "Standing," a statement of empowerment serving as the follow up, goes somewhere else. It almost seems to sing to a musical theatre mentality. Then "Weaver Of Dreams" sets lyrics and lines against left hand bass in casually swinging fashion. And the k.d. Lang-associated "Consequences Of Falling," batting cleanup, brings emotional resonance to the fore in catchy fashion.

The songs filling out the balance of the program, as with the aforementioned material, display catholic tastes and a gift for understatement. There's blues purity in Leroy Carr's "How Long Has That Evening Train Been Gone?"; the sound of surprise in Steve Swallow and Norma Winstone's spry, sly and witty "Ladies In Mercedes"; adult contemporary reflections floating off of Michael McDonald's "I Can Let Go Now"; and gleeful gliding about on Dave Brubeck's "Strange Meadowlark." The closing trio of tracks—a cooled-down trip through Huey Lewis' "The Power Of Love," a touching take on Christian Tamburr's "The Waltz" (with lyrics from Stokes), and a farewell that's familiar with "East Of The Sun And West Of The Moon"—merely amplifies and expands on the virtues of variety that Stokes has already been singing (and playing).

Tracks and Personnel

Fine State

Tracks: You've Got To Be Carefully Taught; Take The B Train; It's Beautiful; It Never Entered My Mind; Wave Over Wave; Off My List; Homeland; Bridges; I Don't Care Anymore; The Right To Love; Walk Between The Raindrops; Pat Murphy's Meadow; Fine State Of Affairs.

Personnel: Heather Bambrick: vocals; Adrean Farrugia: piano (3-5, 6, 10, 12); Michael Shand: piano (1, 2, 7-9, 11, 13); Eric St. Laurent: guitars; Ross MacIntyre: bass; Ben Wittman: drums, percussion; Kelly Jefferson: saxophones; Chase Sanborn: flugelhorn; Carlos del Junco: harmonica (13).

Solo Sessions Volume 1

Tracks: If You Never Come To Me; Standing; Weaver Of Dreams; The Consequences Of Falling; How Long Has That Evening Train Been Gone? Ladies In Mercedes; I Can Let Go Now; Strange Meadowlark; The Power Of Love; The Waltz; East Of The Sun (West Of The Moon).

Personnel: Brenda Earle Stokes: piano, vocals.

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