Another album by a female vocalist, another familiar playlist. But hold the assumptions. This is the first and only commercial album by septuagenarian singer Myrna Lake, but that's not the real story here. The recording is noteworthy above all because it refuses to mistake youth for vitality, slickness for substance, or newness for originality.
Myrna Lake's Yesterdays (Jazzing Music, 2008) is less a trip down memory lane than an exploration of the power of memory itself, a musical narrative yielding the discovery that memory, like the songs that are eventually designated "standards," is a moment in the present, an instant distinguished by heightened awareness and relived, powerful emotion. It's because Lake's interpretations capture such moments with such disarming conviction that this is a recording capable of burrowing its way under the listener's skin and staying there.
Curiously, the opening number is an instrumental with a ballad, or story-like, title: "John Hardy's Wife." It's an unusual start for a vocal albumuntil the moment is past. Upon reflection, the song list and its circular movement hit the listener with the force of an epiphany.
Lake, unlike many of the successful vocalists on the current scene, doesn't "construct" an appealing sound and stick to it regardless of the material. She opens her heart on each tune yet sings with her head as well. The regular choruses are full of surprises, unexpected phrasings and inflections, and when she scats, her choruses evidence inventiveness, logic and drama.
Her reading of "The Man I Love" is up-tempo, much like Coleman Hawkins' swing-era version, with the vocalist fitting in like another instrumentalist on the frontline, proving she can cook with the best of them, whether doing the lyric or an Ella-style scat chorus or a Sarah Vaughan re-creation of the original melody. And after the full-throated emotion of the Gershwin tune, she delivers Jerome Kern's "Yesterdays" with a soft, elegiac timbre, sounding like a viola added to the ensemble mix.
The first vocal is a Johnny Mercer tune but with a difference: "Mandy Is Two" is sung in the future imperfect rather than the simple present tense, and the name referenced in the song isn't "Mandy" but "Ula." The final number on the program appears to be a repeat, but this time the vocalist is true to Mercer's original lyricthe only "right" lyric, or so we'd like to think. But life apparently wasn't fair in the case of Ula who, thanks to Lake's stirring musical poetry, only now "rightly" takes her place in Mercer's song and in human memory.
This is a performer who eschews poses and refuses to rely on a signature sound alone, instead taking risks for the sake of the emotion she finds in the material. In short, she's a musician who possesses, besides a lovely instrument, what is missing in many vocalistswhether young or old, pop or jazz, hip-hop or hip performers. It's called "passion," and artists like Myrna Lake remind us how much it has been missed.