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The skepticism that greeted Ruth Cameron's debut album, First Songs, was palpable. Fairly or unfairly, the CD was considered by many to be less about the discovery of a new jazz singer than about Verve keeping its star bassist Charlie Haden, Ms. Cameron's husband, happy. Although it proved she was a good singer, Ms. Cameron's work on First Songs failed to overcome the presumption of nepotism. Roadhouse, her second CD, is the work of a singer with great, if still unfulfilled, potential, but it is unlikely that the disc will covert any skeptics.
Ms. Cameron has studied with two excellent singers: the talented, too-rarely-heard-from Sue Raney and the legendary Jeri Southern. Ms. Southern's influence is the most strongly felt here especially in the way Ms. Cameron shapes certain vowel sounds. Ms. Cameron sings very soft and low; her timbre at times blurring the line between speech and song. She has a restrained, meditative, elegant approach to lyrics that never feels stiff or cold.
Verve has surrounded Ms. Cameron with a singer's dream band. Yet, despite some wonderful instrumental work and good vocal performances, Roadhouse suffers from a certain monotony. It is not that nearly all the tracks are ballads, but that Ms. Cameron sings too many of those ballads the same way in the same timbre. The quality of her sound does not change significantly from song to song. For example, her emotional state on "Happiness is Just a Thing Called Joe" sounds indistinguishable from her emotional state on "One for My Baby." That type of tonal homogeneity could be overcome through variations in phrasing. However, Ms. Cameron tends to consistently sing in measured phrases holding the notes at the end of each phrase. Rather than bringing her style to the service of the song, the reverse happens. The resulting sameness diminishes the effectiveness of even those tracks where her style is well suited to the material. There are moments, though, when Ms. Cameron breaks out of her pattern. She is very good on the verse to "Body and Soul" and even better on Alec Wilder's "Give Me Time," a song associated with Jeri Southern. She brings a greater range of tonal colors into play on "Again" and negotiates the fine line between playfulness and camp on the closing "Waitin' for the Train to Come In." Perhaps inspired by Gary Foster's tenor saxophone, Ms. Cameron delivers her sharpest, most delineated, most moving performance to date on "Willow Weep for Me."
On Roadhouse, Ms. Cameron successfully captures the feel of the 1950s "cool school" of jazz singing. However, it is worth remembering that only a handful of singers from the "cool school" have had their work survive into the 21st Century. What makes those singers still so appealing is not their style, but the musical and emotional riches they extracted from the songs they sang. Ruth Cameron has plenty of intelligence and talent, the question remains as to whether she has the will to move beyond style and consistently reach for something deeper in her singing.
Track Listing: Something Cool, One for My Baby, My Old Flame, Body and Soul, Again, Willow Weep for Me, Happiness is Just a Thing Called Joe, Detour Ahead, A Sunday Kind of Love, All About Ronnie, Give Me Time, and Waitin' for the Train to Come In.
Personnel: Ruth Cameron: vocals; Charlie Haden: bass; Lawrence Marable: drums; Alan Broadbent: piano; Brad Mehldau: piano; Mike Melvoin: piano; Chris Dawson: piano; Ralph Moore: tenor saxophone; Gary Foster: tenor saxophone; Federico Britos Ruiz: violin.