Kelley Suttenfield: When We Were Young: Kelley Suttenfield Sings Neil Young

Troy Dostert By

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Although most jazz vocalists would shy away from an album's worth of rock tunes penned by Neil Young, Kelley Suttenfield tackles the task with aplomb on When We Were Young, providing skillful renditions of eleven cuts ranging from the well-known to a couple of the most obscure of Young's compositions. Suttenfield's low-key, insouciant delivery is a pleasant listen, and with a fine band in support and some smart arrangements, she generally succeeds in bringing her jazz-inflected style to Young's not-so-jazzy material.

When doing a project of this nature, the most obvious trap is to simply reproduce the sound of the original artist—especially when that artist is someone like Young, who has one of the most recognizable voices and one of the most distinctive guitar styles of anyone in rock and roll. To her credit, Suttenfield doesn't do that, as her vocals tend to float on the melodies rather than grab ahold of them with directness and unfettered emotion, as Young is wont to do. Her guitarist and arranger, Tosh Sheridan, remains similarly independent, as he brings a good deal of creativity to adapting Young's music to what is essentially jazz combo instrumentation, and his guitar playing is crisp and nuanced—hardly the distortion-rich, sometimes frenzied playing of Young at his most boisterous.

Even casual Young fans will appreciate tracks like "Harvest Moon" and "Heart of Gold," both of which have a compelling openness that gives the music plenty of room to breathe, ideal in highlighting the generous support of pianist Matthew Fries, bassist Phil Palombi and drummer Eric Halvorson. These arrangements are done fairly straight, with a gentle 4/4 rock beat that is light on its feet, with the addition of the Memling String Trio on the latter cut quite effective in adding another layer to the music. The strings' presence on a number of the tracks is always tastefully integrated, perhaps most powerfully on "Only Love Can Break Your Heart," where they deepen the track's emotional poignancy.

The album's lesser-known songs might offer the best showcase for Suttenfield's approach. "Fool For Your Love" gets a jaunty rendition here, with the band in a swinging mode that brings out Suttenfield's playful side, not to mention some terrific brushwork from Halvorson and a zesty solo from Sheridan. And "Barefoot Floors," a lilting lullaby Young wrote but has never recorded, is given a graceful treatment by Suttenfield that hews closely to the track's simple melody and heartfelt spirit but without falling into sentimentality.

On the other hand, Suttenfield is somewhat less convincing on Young's more troubled pieces. "Down by the River" doesn't adapt itself as well to Suttenfield's easygoing demeanor, tending to evade the lyrics' unsettling undercurrent of menace and anger, notwithstanding Sheridan's crafty arrangement in 7/8 time. And "The Needle and the Damage Done," one of Young's most anguished songs, just doesn't have the harrowing power one would expect, as Suttenfield evokes jaded indifference rather than heartbreaking grief. But shortcomings aside, Suttenfield and her colleagues have acquitted themselves nicely, with a tribute to Young that is both sincere and musically accomplished.

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