It's a tough time to be a singer. With an excessive plethora of vocalists mining the Great American Songbook ad nauseum
, or trying their hands at songwriting with less than distinctive results, it's harder than ever to be heard. Even once-innovative singers like Cassandra Wilson
now a Grammy Award
-winning "star"have deserted experimentation, resting instead on their not inconsiderable laurels in pursuit of consistent record sales, but losing the edge that got them where they are in the first place.
All of which makes Fay Victor such a welcome dark horse. The singer's previous disc, Cartwheels Through the Cosmos (ArtistShare, 2007), introduced a new working ensemble featuring guitarist Anders Nilsson, bassist Ken Filiano, and drummer Michael "T.A." Thompson," all of whom are back for The Freesong Suite, an even more successful stylistic mélange. Once again, Victor's soulful, emotive delivery combines with avant-tinged invention, placing her alongside great vocal innovators like Betty Carter, Jeanne Lee, Sheila Jordan...and, when she was moving forward rather than sideways, Cassandra Wilson.
Victor also continues her fruitful relationship with producer Jochem van Dijk, with whom the singer once again collaborates for The Freesong Suite's all-original repertoire. There's plenty of collective improvisation throughout the disc, but unlike many albums where composition is discretely interspersed with free improvisation, the free play is integrated into the written material, heavily blurring the line between form and freedom.
The Freesong Suite connects with even more stylistic touchstones than Cartwheels Through the Cosmos. The obliquely economical "Dry" features Victor's abstruse melodies, supported by Nilsson's warm, spare voicings and Filiano's unfettered expression. The perennially undervalued Filiano looms large throughout the set, creating soft arco loops at the start of "Bob and Weave" that underpin Victor's empathic vocal responses, before Thompson kicks in with a powerful yet elastic backbeat and the song assumes greater form. Nilsson's densely distorted slide guitar shifts to a cleaner tone for the tune's second half, a blues-tinged vamp that demonstrates how much can be done with a single chord, a singular pulse, and a group of musicians for whom anything is within reach.
Despite being more closely aligned to melody than Norwegian vocalist Sidsel Endresenalbeit, usually, of the most obscure kindthere are some parallels in Victor's lyric extemporization and her creation of sounds beyond the reach of most human voices, in particular on the jagged, guttural "Stemming." But, like Endresen, Victor is equally capable of compelling melodism, with "Joe's Car" recalling a skewed Joni Mitchell, even as it combines Nilsson's Delta-tinged intro with a rockier energy; the closest Victor comes to true song form on the disc.
Victor may be an acquired taste, but she's well worth the effort; a truly creative singer with the chops to accomplish whatever she wants, but the good taste to ensure that substance always trumps style. With an ensemble that twists and turns the music in response to, and as a catalyst for, Victor's own unbound improvisational acumen, The Freesong Suite is a vocal album that stands well above the pack; a welcome respite from the unwieldy preponderance of unimaginative vocal jazz albums hitting the market.
Room 1407: Seasons, Dry, Bob and Weave, Night Ties; Room 1093: Joe's Car, Stemming; Room 1310: Gone Fishing, Ideal Situation, Heating Up; Seasons - Reprise.
Fay Victor: vocals; Anders Nilsson: guitar; Ken Filiano: string bass; Michael "T.A." Thompson: drums, percussion.