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Denise Donatelli: When Lights are Low

Nicholas F. Mondello By

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A recent news photo depicted pop singer, Lady Gaga, accepting an MTV Video Music Award bedecked in a gown of raw meat. While reactions to that stunt went to understandable extremes—condone as art or revolt as déclassé—it's easy to wonder what women jazz vocalists might have thought of it. Based upon the marvelously entertaining and stylistically brilliant CD, When Lights are Low, it might not be a surprise to envision Denise Donatelli heading up on stage come Grammy time. And, the only "chops" she'd be wearing would be the ones she carries wherever she appears.

When Lights are Low is a knockout, an outstanding, beautiful CD on all fronts—Donatelli's, the tunes, the ensembles, and the soup-to-nuts entire production. In a descriptively admirable way, it is a stellar, one-dimensional showcase, where Donatelli shrewdly fits in perfectly with the entire textural approach, devised here by pianist Geoffrey Keezer—who, in addition to performing on the album, is both producer and artistic director.

Donatelli's is a vocal instrument of classic beauty, impeccable diction, dynamic nuance, phrasing and emotion. She turns a lyric with taste and passion, and has great respect for both ("Hush Now"). Donatelli can swing heavy, too ("It's You or No One"). As a youngster, Donatelli shared car rides to piano lessons with Keith Jarrett; here, with wunderkind Keezer at the keyboard, Donatelli shows instrumental experience through her voice, and interplay with—forgive the homonym—"Keez."

The Donatelli-Keezer team works in such wonderful, respectful compatibility. Her rhythmic approach is framed by Keezer's deft touch—classic and swinging. He's a very sly partner, too, a "Have You Met Miss Jones?" five-note quote introducing his solo on "It's You or No One." Their beautiful takes on "Why Did I Choose You?" and "Forward, Like So" are duo perfection. Sting's "Big Lie, Small World," done bossa-style with neat vocal backgrounds provided by Julia Dollison and Kerry Marsh engages. "Enchantment (Firm Roots)" cooks at multiple temps with terrific solos by guitarist Peter Sprague and Keezer.

The incorporation of chamber strings and voices, arranged by Keezer, are a beautiful, romantic touch, as is Ingrid Jensen's haunting flugelhorn solo on "Hush Now"—perhaps the CD's only drawback being that this is the only cut to feature Jensen's terrific talent. The rhythm section, comprised of Keezer, bassist Hamilton Price, Jon Wikan and Sprague, meshes perfectly.

While there might not be electricity there, When Lights Are Low is powerhouse, desert island stuff.

Track Listing: It's You or No One; Don't Explain; When Lights are Low; Big Lie, Small World; Why Did I Choose You?; I Wish I Were in Love Again; Kisses (Cantor Da Noite; Forward, Like So; The Telephone Song; The Bed I Made; Enchantment (Firm Roots).

Personnel: Denise Donatelli: vocal; Geoffrey Keezer: piano/Rhodes; Peter Sprague: guitar;Hamilton Price: bass/electric bass (10); Jon Wikan: drums/percussion; Jon Wikan:pandeiro (9); Susan Wulff: double bass (2, 7); Giovanni Clayton: cello (2,7); Roland Kato: viola (2, 7): Alma Lisa Fernandez: viola (2,7); Matthew Duckles: viola (2, 7); Julia Dollison: vocals (4, 10); Kerry Marsh: vocal (4, 10); Ingrid Jensen: flugelhorn (2); Phil O'Connor: bass clarinet (4, 10); Ron Blake: soprano sax (7).

Title: When Lights are Low | Year Released: 2010 | Record Label: Savant Records

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