Jazz fans can be forgiven for approaching Play It Cool with some degree of skepticism. After all, Lea DeLaria is known for her work as a comic and for her appearances on the Broadway stage neither of which is a breeding ground for jazz musicians. However, this turns out to be one of those cases where you find yourself recalling the old adage about books and covers. Despite its obvious flaws and limitations, Play It Cool turns out to be an authentic and fairly interesting jazz record.
Of course, it helps that Warner Brothers has surrounded Ms. DeLaria with an impressive collection of jazz musicians. The disc is divided nicely between off-the-cuff performances with a small group and more tightly arranged pieces for a larger ensemble. Larry Goldings and Gil Goldstein split the arranging duties and generally do a very good job.
Ms. DeLaria sings with an appealing sophistication only occasionally displaying the brassiness one normally associates with musical theater performers. She has a light, attractive voice that serves her best in its lower and middle registers. Her tone becomes far less appealing at the top, and when she has to stretch for a note, she more often than not misses it.
To her credit, Ms. DeLaria is not one of those singers who confuse jazz singing with singing standards. There are no tired versions of “My Funny Valentine” or “When I Fall in Love.” She has used her background in musical theater to assemble an unhackneyed program of tough showtunes, and she doesn’t back down from the challenge they present. That having been said, a few of the songs do not translate well to the jazz idiom, most notably Michael John LaChiusa’s “Welcome to My Party.” Ms. DeLaria does best with a smart and subtle reinvention of “Cool” from West Side Story, a sauntering take on Randy Newman’s “Life Has Been Good To Me” and a hard swinging charge through Cy Coleman & Carolyn Leigh’s “I’ve Got Your Number.”
Her attentiveness to the structure of the songs suggests that Ms. DeLaria’s interest in jazz is genuine. She does best on medium and up-tempo tunes where she improvises within the lyrics. However, her brief attempts at scat singing are clichéd and amateurish. Ms. DeLaria wisely includes two unjustly neglected gems, Cy Coleman’s “With Every Breath I Take” and Stephen Sondheim’s “Losing My Mind.” Unfortunately, her improvisations on these ballads tend to wander a bit distracting from her otherwise attentive reading of the lyrics.
At this stage, it is unclear whether Ms. DeLaria is simply indulging in a private passion or if she intends to continue singing jazz on a regular basis. If the latter turns out to be the case, it will be very interesting to see what a few years of seasoning on the road with good jazz musicians will do for her.
The Ballad of Sweeney Todd, Cool, I
Lea DeLaria: vocals; Brad Mehldau: piano; Gil Goldstein: piano, accordion and arrangments; Larry Goldings: piano and arrangements; Larry Grenadier: bass; Gregory Hutchinson: drums; Howard Alden: acoustic guitar; Scott Wendholt: trumpet; Jon Gordon: alto saxophone; Seamus Blake: tenor saxophone; Keith O