While veteran vocal improvisers Judy Niemack
and Jay Clayton
have known each other since the '70s, Voices in Flight
marks their first time together in the studio. They have performed some of the album material in live shows since the early 2000s, including their medley of "Body and Soul" and Idrees Sulieman
's gorgeous contrafact of it, "Orange Blossoms" ("With You"). Niemack sings the Sulieman tune, highlighting her craft in writing texts for instrumental jazz tunes that match the melodic inflections perfectly. She writes lyrics in a kind of vocalese style that feels personal and discursive, at home in an improvisatory milieu. Although her roots go back to the New York loft scene and free jazz movement of the '60s, Clayton has long been a master of interpreting jazz standards in a comparably conversational and unaffected way, as if composing even the most familiar song on the spot. Her rendition of "Body and Soul" in this medley speaks to that ability. The singing is disarmingly straightforward, as is the arrangement. The songs are given in sequence, then Niemack and Clayton deftly join them to sing the final bridge out in counterpoint. (Listen to the YouTube at the bottom of the page.) Another high point is "He's a Man" ("Sagittarius"), a Curtis Fuller
tune, again with Niemack's lyrics, which she and Clayton have been performing live for decades. (Look for a YouTube from Sweet Rhythm in 2008.) The performance starts off quietly, with the two voices improvising wordlessly together, delicately negotiating their shared space. To begin the tune, they alternate verses. To open the solo section, they share a scat chorus, singing simultaneously and antiphonally. With the sparse but supportive accompaniment of Jeanfrancois Prins
' guitar and Jay Anderson
's bass, the effect is superbly translucent. Niemack's ability to match verbal and melodic syntax goes in both directions, as her exquisite setting of Joy Hargo's "Eagle Poem" shows. Hargo became United States Poet Laureate in 2019, the first Native American to be honored this way, and the only person to have been granted three terms under the title. Niemack's tune captures speech rhythms and tonal inflections in the poem, as well as some of the ineffable "languages that aren't always sound but other circles of emotion."
Clayton's "Haperchance," a duet with Anderson, her longtime musical partner, works in a complementary way. She recites the poem (hers), inserting moments of voice-bass free improvisation between each line. The contrast between abstract sound and commanding speech ("let's go, move on...") is striking. Clayton's wordless flights are typically as gentle, unpretentious, and heartfelt as her lyric readings. Her sound vocabulary is idiosyncratic, in keeping with her creed of being "really you" in all things, without artifice or imitation. Accompanied empathetically by John di Martino
's crystalline piano and Anderson's upright bass, her genuine and moving reading of Thelonious Monk
's "Reflections," with lyrics by Jon Hendricks
("Looking Back"), illuminates this attitude beautifully. Voices in Flight
is an affecting collection of duets, trios, and quartet performances by five wonderful musicians who also happen to be old friends. The album is lean, honest, and lovely.
Questions and Answers (Play Pen); Ditto; With You (Orange Blossoms) - Body
and Soul; You (Hum); Beloved; Beginner; Looking Back (Reflections); Soaring
(Lotus Blossom); Haperchance; Eagle Poem; He's A Man (Sagittarius); Like
Water Off A Stray Dog; Badadadat; Wondering.
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