CD Review: Lena Seikaly’s “Looking Back”

“A perfectly wonderful jazz vocal album”

By Roger Crane, the Song Scout

A classically trained mezzo-soprano who swings? Yes – and her name is Lena Seikaly. Although only 25, she is an established composer who has written many classical and jazz arrangements for small ensembles, choirs and full orchestra. She is also an educator, a successful teacher of jazz and classical voice.

But I wish to focus on that rich voice. Whatever your vocal criteria – quality of sound, intonation, phrasing, handling of time – Seikaly excels. She is a smart, sophisticated vocalist for grown ups.

Lena Seikaly
Lena Seikaly

 

If justice does exist, Looking Back, her third self-produced CD, should make the Washington D.C.-based Seikaly a star. Although it was released a year and a half ago, it is fresh on the national scene and worthy of more attention.  Seikaly has it all, a luxuriant rich voice with a melted-butter vibrato, a feeling for jazz, a deft sense of swing, effortless delivery, stunning presentation and a Rolls-Royce quartet providing her accompaniment. Just as importantly, she projects an unaffected honesty and joy.

Like many of the better singers, Seikaly also has an impeccable repertoire. Three ballads immediately grabbed my attention. Her easy patient way with “Baby, What Else Can I Do” is downright ecstatic. Is this seldom-heard Walter Hirsch-Gerald Marks collaboration truly a great song or is her sensuous delivery seducing my ear? Either way, the 5-minute cut alone is worth the price of the CD.

I have not heard a better rendition of Harold Arlen’s dramatic 1933 “I Cover the Waterfront.” Seikaly nicely includes his well-written but seldom heard verse and deftly handles the four octave jumps. The marvelous and sad “Supper Time” is certainly one of Irving Berlin’s greatest ballads particularly that long 16-measure bridge. Seikaly brings this cry of anguish to vibrant life.

She also swings delightfully and is even the scat’s meow. Mel Torme once said something like “a little scatting goes a long way.” It seems that every new jazz-influenced singer feels a need to scat, whether they have a facility for this vocal art form or not. Fortunately Seikaly’s scatting is subtle and as true as an oboe and she nicely uses this vocal technique judiciously. For example, on Gershwin’s “Fascinating Rhythm” and Duke Ellington’s “I Love You Madly” she is in lockstep with Zach Pride’s bass. Like an experienced lover, Siekaly initially takes her time with Benny Davis’ “I’m Nobody’s Baby” and then, with effective use of dynamics swings and scats the subsequent choruses. Drummer Lenny Robison displays his talents on this cut.

This is certainly Seikaly’s CD but she benefits immeasurably from the seamless interaction with her group. Pianist Chris Grasso, whether swinging or laying down tasty chords is superb. Bassist Zach Pride has a sound with depth and authenticity, something you want to reach out and touch. Guitarist Paul Pieper talents are very much evident on such cuts as Richard Whiting’s beloved standard “Guilty.” Speaking of this cut, you may notice that Seikaly’s Looking Back is somewhat a tribute to vocalists Billie Holiday and Ethel Waters.

Maybe it’s the water or the climate. Whatever the reason, the DC-Maryland area seems to have had more than it’s share of superior vocalists. Just to cite two examples, in the 1970s-80s there was the sublime Shirley Horn. In the ’90s – for too short a time – there was the genre-defying, captivating Eva Cassidy. Those two are stellar company and now we can add Lena Seikaly to this illustrious duo.

She has a natural, relaxed voice and was born to sing. Her warm timbre and uncomplicated phrasing are notable for their ease and expressiveness. You understand every word she sings and, given her selections on this CD, the lyrics deserve to be heard.  Looking Back is a perfect jazz vocal album. If that sounds too reverent, let me change the praise to “perfectly wonderful.” I’m already looking forward to her next release. For more information on background and recordings, click HERE to visit Seikaly’s website.

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To read more about Roger Crane, the Song Scout, click HERE.

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