You cannot judge a jazz CD by its cover, particularly in this age of frankly shoddy-looking self-produced sleeves that may well detract attention from good music inside. The cover of Jennifer Lee's Quiet Joy is not amateurishon the contrary, it is very tastefully assembled. Nevertheless, it could be misleading. The cover depicts the San Francisco Bay Area-based singer and instrumentalist seated in a leafy flower garden, the details spelled out in a sunny font. The packaging promises the musical equivalent of the herbal tea Lee appears to be savoring earnestly in the photograph: watery, bland, maybe superfluously seasoned with cinnamon or nutmeg. Probably healthy for you.
Not to worry. The inner armature of Quiet Joy is Brazilian music, including samba and bossa nova, musical forms whose liquid equivalent...well, it wouldn't be herbal tea. Lee and her bandmates play this music quite idiomatically, bearing witness to Lee's years leading the Doce Brasil group. The wordless title track (a Lee composition in a decidedly carioca vein) delights with marvelous accents provided by Raul Ramirez's percussion details. The Brazilian numbers are exquisitely chosen; on several, Lee accompanies her own vocals on acoustic guitar. These performances compare quite favorably with the celebrated Morelenbaum²/Sakamoto Casa (Sony, 2002), a Jobim tribute.
The bossa nova elements share sonic space with straight-ahead jazz, which the Lee group does equally well on a handful of tracks. The medley of Roberto Guimarães's fine "Amor Certinho" paired with Gershwin's "'S Wonderful" is one that embodies the disc's musical philosophy. The best among the jazz tunes is "You Knew," sounding vaguely like a bona fide standard ("I Let A Song Go Out Of My Heart" or "Love For Sale"?), but it is in fact another fine Lee original. Lee's piano playing is bright and propulsive, and Bay Area coffee lovers might just swoon when she mentions Peet's Coffee and Tea on Piedmont Avenue in Oakland.
Better still than the successful marriage of jazz and Brazilian standards is Lee's singing. The number of pitch-perfect vocalists who come down the pike these days is astonishing, but quite rare are those whose voices have genuine personality. Lee is among the latter. In fact, she sings the way critic Robert Christgau once described Dewey Redman's tenor saxophone playing: technically perfect and full of heart.
Quiet Joy is bound to disappoint those looking for the aural version of a tepid chamomile tea, but certain to delight the rest of us.
Track Listing: I Hear Music; Quiet Joy; Menina da Lua; O Barquinho; Music of Your Soul; You Knew; O Pato; Menininha do Portao; Baby Mine; I Don