Jazz CDs: Canaries of August — Tessa Souter, Gretchen Parlato, Willie Nelson, Greta Matassa, Judy Carmichael

By Don Heckman

Tessa Souter

Obsession (Motema)

There are some jazz singers who tell stories, some who become virtual instruments, some who transform songs into expressions of their own pain. Tessa Souter does all that — and more, from time to time — in her quest to inhabit a song, to give it a life of her own fashioning. And “Obsession” is a gripping display of her ability to do it all with a startlingly far-reaching collection of material.

Her spirited versions, for example, of a pair of Milton Tesssa Souter CDNascimento songs — “”Make This City Ours Tonight” and “Vera Cruz (Empty Faces)” — are showcase items for the warm, caressing sound of her voice, her innate sense of swing and her articulate way with a lyric. Reaching in a very different direction, she tells the story of Lennon & McCartney’s “Eleanor Rigby” with a revelatory quality I’ve never heard before. Then, with Cream’s “White Room” — superbly aided by guitarist Jason Ennis’ epic arrangement — she finds substance in a lightweight tune, her voice soaring freely across a turbulent landscape of shifting rhythmic meters.

Souter’s musical imagining produces an arrangement perfectly pairing Mongo Santamaria’s “Afro-Blue” and Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints” and adds her own tender lyrics to Freddie Hubbard’s “Little Sunflower.” She also includes a pair of her own originals — the torch song regrets of “Now and Then” and the incantatory “Usha’s Wedding” — and a dramatic, rubato reading of Alex North’s “Love Theme From Spartacus.”

It’s a remarkable program, as entertaining as it is illuminating, the work of an artist with the talent and the imagination to match her compelling musical visions.

Tessa Souter performs in Los Angeles at Catalina Bar & Grill on Tues. and Wed., Sept. 1 & 2.

Gretchen Parlato

In A Dream (ObliqSound)

There’s an enigmatic quality to Gretchen Parlato’s singing, a mysterious brew of sound and breath, of simmering inner rhythms and phrasing that curls seductively around the words. It seems to me that it’s a quality that was slowly beginning to surface in her earliest work, even while she was still a student at USC’s Thelonious Monk Institute. But it’s never been more apparent than it is in this mesmerizing, appropriately titled new recording.

The first track, Stevie Wonder’s “I Can’t Help It,”Gretchen Parlato CD immediately announces that the album is going be an extraordinary musical experience. Sung with the sole accompaniment of Lionel Loueke’s body-moving guitar lines, Parlato’s hand claps and clicking sounds, the tune roves from the song itself across individual and collective improvising. And that musical intimacy between Parlato and Loueke continues to be a foundation of many of the songs: their rhythmically layered vocal interaction in Herbie Hancock’s “Butterfly”; the blending of their voices in the body percussion-and-vocal version of Dorival Caymmi’s “Doralice”; their floating harmonies in Duke Ellington’s “Azure”; the back and forth vocal dueting, spiced with accents from Loueke’s guitar and Aaron Parks’ keyboards in Francis Jacob’s delightful “On the Other Side.”

There’s more, much more: a pair of tunes with Parlato lyrics (the title track, “In A Dream” and “Turning Into Blue”; wordless vocal explorations with her quartet (Loueke, Parks, bassist Derrick Hodge and drummer Kendrick Scott) on Wayne Shorter’s “E.S.P.”; and an album-wrapping, darkly intense version of SWV’s #1 r&b hit, “Weak.”

Parlato has been blessed with extraordinary talents — an unerring sense of pitch, utterly relaxed rhythmic clarity, an open ear for harmony. Other singers have similar abilities. But what makes Parlato so unique is the imaginative way in which she uses those skills to rove deeply within the instrumental sounds, while still retaining her presence as the vocal center of the music.

So here’s an announcement to the members of the Recording Academy and the Grammy nominating committees: “In A Dream” belongs in the four or five Grammy nominations for Best Jazz Vocal Album (and maybe more than that). Omit it and your credibility — already subject to question — goes out the window.

Gretchen Parlato performs in Los Angeles at Catalina Bar & Grill on Mon. Sept. 21.

Willie Nelson

American Classic (Blue Note)

Willie Nelson’s previous foray into the Great American Songbook –– Stardust — was released in 1978 But this new collection is very different from the vaguely country qualities of Stardust. It is, for the most part, a completely characteristic, lushly atmospheric Tommy LiPuma production of the sort that he’s Willie Nelson CDdone for the last decade or so with Diana Krall. But it’s at its best when LiPuma occasionally spices it with country. rhythms and timbres. (Krall guests on one of the tracks — “If I Had You” and contributes some piano stylings, as well. Norah Jones duets with Nelson on “Baby It’s Cold Outside.”)

Nelson’s familiar, raspy sound and spoken-style phrasing are the essence of a country poet vocal technique that has made him one of popular music’s most engaging personas. And, in this outing, he is most effective with songs that allow him to work his narratives and tell his stories, rather than with material that demands soaring vocal musicality. His versions of “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “I Miss You So,” “You Were Always On My Mind” (a song he owns) and, curiously, a reading of “On the Street Where You Live” that shimmers with an undercurrent of western Swing, are delightful displays of the singing poet in action.

Willie Nelson will be touring the U.S. in Sept. and Oct.

Greta Matassa

I Wanna Be Loved (Resonance Records)

Greta Matassa’s career has been plagued by reviews identifying her residence in Seattle as the reason why her impressive jazz vocal skills have had such minimal visibility. I’ve been guilty of it, myself, in coverage of both live and recorded Matassa performances. But, redundant as it may seem, it is nonetheless a shame that, after eight albums she’s still hasn’t had the attention she Gretta matassadeserves. Will this album make the difference? Based solely on Matassa’s singing and her fine choice of repertoire, it should.

The problem is that the album has been conceptualized with Matassa’s singing as the central element in a busy surrounding of far too many instrumental solos, busy ensemble textures and thick strings. Well done though they may be, the net effect is to draw attention away from some extraordinary vocal performances. On the title track, for example, Matassa sings superbly in a gently swinging segment in which she’s backed only by bass; but the tune then comes apart with the arrival of a fiery tenor saxophone solo that, for all its rapid articulation, is unrelated from the meaning of the tune. On the Henry Mancini classic, “Two For the Road,” a dense forest of strings distracts from Matassa’s tender reading of Leslie Bricusse’s evocative lyrics.

All that said, the richly varied timbres of Matassa’s voice, her far-roving interpretations and her gifts for story telling through song are fully present in every track. Viewed from the perspective of those qualities alone, this is an album that should be heard — far beyond Seattle.

Greta Matassa performs frequently at Tula’s Jazz Restaurant in Seattle.

Judy Carmichael

Come and Get It (C & D Productions)

Judy Carmichael’s performances have always been among the jazz world’s most entertaining events. With every tune driven by the rhythmic engine of her stride style, enhanced by the always-adept, straight ahead players in her bands, it’s almost impossible to resist the foot-tapping seduction of one classic tune after another. As if all that wasn’t enough, she now has added Judy Carmichaelvocals to her musical arsenal in this new recording. And it’s a good move. Phrasing like the improvising musician she is, Carmichael also has a sound — especially in the slower tunes — reminiscent of the throaty tones of Peggy Lee.

The result is a collection of irresistible tunes backed by the Judy Carmichael seven — an ensemble she describes as her “long held dream of having a big band.” Are some of the styles dated? Sure. But anyone who thinks in those terms doesn’t appreciate the full value of jazz — from ragtime to avant-garde — as a living art. Carmichael knows better, and her singing, her playing, her wit and her humor on pieces such as “All the Cats,” “Memories of You,” “Gee, Baby,” “You’re Driving Me Crazy,” “Minor Drag,” the title track and more, reach beyond labels and into the timeless heart of the music.

Judy Carmichael performs in New York City at Feinstein’s at the Regency on Mon. Aug. 31.

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