Sylvia Bennett, Aniya, Lauren White, Perez: A Quartet of Standards

C. Michael Bailey By

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Standards are still the bread and butter of jazz. Whether from Tin Pan Alley's American songbook or specifically composed as jazz and assimilated into the jazz repertoire, the standard offers musicians a proven, tried and true vehicle with which to ply their artistic trade. This is never more the case than in the realm of jazz vocals.

With jazz vocals the listener generally has exposure to what is closest to the original intentions of the composers regarding melody. Presented here are four exceptional releases by women who approach their craft from vastly differing angles.

Sylvia Bennett
Songs from the Heart
Out of Sight Music

Sylvia Bennett was featured on Lionel Hampton's final recording, There Will Never Be Another You (Out of Sight Music, 2006). In that big band setting, Bennett was impressive. She returns here with a small combo recording that features "the three tenors," Boots Randolph, Ed Calle, and Kirk Whalum: Songs From The Heart.

On its face, Songs From The Heart appears as merely one more standards recording to be added to the bazillion already clotting the market. However, Bennett's vocal grace makes this disc an exceptional standards recording. The value of a good standards collection is that the jazz fan gets a chance to hear what the composer intended with his or her melody before a jazz instrumentalist improvises upon it.

Bennett goes heavy on the Gershwin. All of the usual suspects are here: "Embraceable You," "They Can't Take That Away From Me," "Someone To Watch Over Me," and "How Long Has This Been Going On" are all here, performed with a perhaps too-perfect aplomb, but one that makes them very listenable. Bennett is flirty on "Ain't Misbehavin'" and prim on "My Funny Valentine." Her crack rhythm section rounded out by guitarist (and producer) Hal Batt gives the singer a little big band.

The three tenors? They do themselves proud with the edge going to Ed Calle, who seems to be everywhere at once. Songs from the Heart is a canned affair, but it is a very fine one.

In Other Words

Shirley Horn is the first person who comes to mind when listening the Aniya's In Other Words. Not because Aniya has a deep smoky voice that can precisely dissect any ballad, but because the young vocalist has, like the late Horn, an impeccable momentum at extremely slow tempi. This is a verrry slooow "Fly Me To The Moon" (alternate title: "In Other Words"). Sinatra would have never thought this Bart Howard tune a thoughtful ballad.

Re-enforcing the ballad tone of this recording is the presence of pianist Alan Broadbent. Broadbent's distinctive pianism infuses the music with a taut body directed by his acute sense of nuance: a blue note here, an Art Tatum flourish there. Broadbent singlehandedly propels the Burt Bacharach/Hal David "The Look Of Love" into a standards contender. For her part, Aniya summons the potent spirit of Dusty Springfield, who debuted the song in the 1967 James Bond movie spoof, Casino Royale.

Aniya sums her fine disc up with the closing tow songs, "Every Time We Say Goodbye" and "Never Let Me Go." The singer elevates these ballads to a poetic level rarely achieved. With the support of her hyper-talented band, Aniya establishes herself as a talent warranting greater critical attention in the future.

Lauren White
At Last
Grove Note

Lauren White is a young jazz vocalist from deep in the heart of Texas, Dallas to be exact. Her debut release, At Last, is an auspicious if not ambitious recording of standards seasoned with three original compositions by White. White splits her standards between traditional Tin Pan Alley ("My One And Only," "Love For Sale," My Funny Valentine") and a more modern fare ("Blue Bayou," "Superstar," "At Last").

White employs an impressive band that includes Bill Cunliffe and Brian Piper on piano, Joe Baggs on Hammond B-3 organ, and Ricky Woodard on tenor saxophone. With the contribution of the rhythm section of bassist Chuck Bergeron and drummer Frank Derrick, White's band provides a hip cutting edge in support of her contemporary vocal delivery. She shines most brightly on her original compositions. "All I Do Is Cry" is a modern ballad with a Dan Fogelberg-like arrangement. White throws off her jazz togs for this Topanga County throwback.

"Do You Remember" is much more in the strolling jazz vein, with a smoky single-malt scotch chord progression evoking an after-hours feel. "Brand New Love" is a jaunty, blues-hewn affair spiced with Ricky Woodard's broad tenor. White sensuously slurs her way through the verses into the rollicking bridge. Smart lyrics and intelligent soloing make these compositions fresh.

The standards working best for White are a thoughtful "My One And Only," a coquettish "Blue Bayou," and a thankfully non-Latin interpreted "Love For Sale." "My Funny Valentine" makes for an interesting yin to Leon Russell's "Superstar" yang. The Etta James classic title cut offers White the chance to spin her warm liquid vocal web, full of punch and sex. This debut is better than could be hoped for...and that is always a good thing.

It's Happenin'
Zoho Music

Diana Perez is the new voice of this bunch, in spite of the fact she has been actively performing as both actor and vocalist for several years. Perez (now the single moniker) has joined forces with Zoho Music and its considerable talent pool to produce the richly entertaining and pleasantly surprising It's Happenin'.

It's Happenin' is populated with not-so-standard standards offering a striking comparison to the "standard" fare of many vocal recordings. While this does not make Perez's effort superior to an assembly of warhorses, it does make it more compelling and interesting. And then there is that voice.

Perez's voice is a humidly sensual work of art: a perfectly formed alto with a solid bottom, a broad midrange of consistent density, and a confident top. This voice permits Perez to sing whatever she damn well pleases...and to sing it well. The listener need not cue up more than the disc's two vocalese pieces: the Annie Ross vehicle "Farmer's Market" and Giacomo Gates adaptation of Miles Davis' "Milestones" to hear that the "new thing" in jazz vocals has arrived.

Perez's band is sharp, particularly drummer Joe Farnsworth, who brings a big band sound to her sensible combo. He plays sensitively on the Bill Evans' piece "Detour Ahead," adapted by Perez from the classic Live At The Village Vanguard, which also sports a nifty flute solo by Jed Levy.

Tracks and Personnel

Songs From The Heart

Tracks: Embraceable You; They Can't Take That Away From Me; My Funny Valentine; Since I Fell For You; Someone To Watch Over Me; Ain't Misbehavin'; Here's That Rainy Day; I Still Love You; When Sunny Gets Blue; You Make Me Feel So Young; How Long Has This Been Going On; As Time Goes By.

Personnel: Sylvia Bennett: vocals; Chuck Bergeron: bass; Brian Murphy: piano; Frank Derrick: drums; Hal Batt: guitar; Sammy Figueroa: percussion; Boots Randolph; Ed Calle, Kirk Whalum: tenor saxophone.

In Other Words

Tracks: Fly Me To The Moon; Lover Man; Blame It On My Youth; The Look Of Love; The Nearness Of You; Prelude To A Kiss; Everytime We Say Goodbye; Never Let Me Go.

Personnel: Aniya: vocals; Alan Broadbent: piano; Dave Carpenter: bass; Peter Erskine: drums: Dirk K: guitar, percussion.

At Last

Tracks: My One And Only; All I Do Is Cry; Blue Bayou; Do You Remember; Mack The Knife; Love For Sale; Brand New Love; Superstar; My Funny Valentine; Why They Call It Falling; At Last.

Personnel: Lauren White: vocals; Anthony Wilson: guitar; Ricky Woodard: tenor saxophone; Bill Cunliffe, Brian Piper: piano; Joe Bagg: Hammond B-3 organ; Chuck Berghofer: bass guitar; Mark Ferber: drums.

It's Happenin'

Tracks: Line Drive; Will You Still Be There (What If I Don't); Blame It On My Youth; Corcovado; Detour Ahead; Farmer's Market; In The Wee Small Hours; Mile Stones; Nature Boy; Perdido.

Personnel: Perez: vocals; Jed Levy: alto saxophone, flute; David Hazeltine: piano; Nat Reeves: bass; Joe Farnsworth: drums; Steve Davis: trombone; Ron Horton: trumpet.

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