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Notes of an Amateur - March, 2007, Part 1
Karrin Allyson, Footprints, Concord Jazz, CCD 2291
There is a tradition or at least a convention among women jazz singers to approximate their (frequently alto) voices to the warm, firm timbre of a tenor saxophone; and to establish their individuality by working variations on that shared sound. The goal seems to be to sound like the instrument they are, in effect, standing in for. Hence also the convention of scat.
I like this tradition and I especially like listening to all of these sonic sisters' individual takes on it. My favorite jazz singer for many years has been Anity O'Day. My current favorite is Karrin Allyson, who moves a bit further away from the classic jazz sound than most. In her new album, Footprints, you can hear a perfect example of what I'm talking about. She sings duets with two of her jazz heroes, Nancy King and Jon Hendricks, to whom the CD is dedicated. On my first listen, I was surprised to hear Allyson suddenly lose her distinctive voice and take on something closer to the classic norm; then I realized I was listening to Nancy King's verse!
What distinguishes Allyson's voice from her peers, past and present, is an emotional glow that is instantly recognizable. The traditional firm, almost impersonal, surface of the female jazz singer voice seems more transparent with Allyson. Listening to her is like looking into a pool of water you are used to attending to the surface of. Meaning she has just enough of the popular female vocalist in her delivery to stretch the genre, give it a more overtly personal emotional quality than we are used to hearing from a jazz singer. This is, of course, risky business, unless you're very good and have a perfect grasp of the differences between jazz and pop. Over the course of her career, Allyson has not always avoided sentimental lapses. But her successes far outnumber her transgressions. I met her on Ballads— Remembering John Coltrane (Concord CCD 4950) in 2001, and immediately bought up everything of hers in print.
For me, while I still love Anita and her ilk—and there is more than a hint of O'Day in Karrin's huskier moments, Ms. Allyson proves that venturing a little beyond the norm can be worth the risks—and actually help define it. Try Footprints, which is great fun. Allyson is at her best, Nancy King and Jon Hendricks are a gas, and the band is wonderful. Then definitely track down Ballads, which may be her premier recording.
Lucinda Williams, West, Lost Highway Records, 69389.
Like most you, I met Lucinda on her self-titled Lucinda Williams, nineteen (!) years ago. And like some of you, I fell in love. The perfect cure for Mary Chapin Carpenter. (Willliams had already made two rootsy/bluesy albums for Smithsonian Folkways, in 1978 and 1980, but LW was her first pop/rock album.) Since that album and Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, made ten years later in 1998, around the time LW was remastered and re-released with additional material, I have not been consistently taken with her work. Car Wheels was still lithe and had crisp and spunky forward momentum, refusing to fall down into itself and wallow: pain is transmuted into song. Even in her slower tunes, as always with Lucinda, lamenting lost loves, there is wonderful alto light in her voice. There are no great songs on CW but they are all good enough. And the voice is prime Lucinda. This is a CD you put on repeat and listen to all day as you work around the house. In retrospect, it's as if this is the last album of her youth and I need to get over it. Gurf Morlix is lead guitar on LW and most of CW, and somehow this seems to figure into the easy, lively confidence of the music.
And then three years later, 2001, we fall into the lassitude and exhaustion of Essence. Her voice is loose and flaccid. Her spunky sexiness goes lax, turns in upon itself in breathy self-pity. It is like a parody of the Lucinda we hear in LW and CW, and our loudspeakers go limp. Life has defeated art. I can imagine the same songs sung with a firmer delivery, by her. I don't want anybody else singing them. But I want her to sing them, not throw them away. Even on upbeat numbers, she undersings, drags along, like a beaten dog. "Out of Touch" and "Are You Down" aren't bad, but knowing what she could do with them I'm disappointed. The title song, "Essence," is the flower that grows up and out of this emotional mire and almost redeems the album. It is one of the best things she's ever done. To say how good it is and why would take a page. It is horny and witty simultaneously. If she can write and sing like this at this point in her career and life, what is she doing wallowing around in the other stuff on this album?!! After "Essence," we are back in the mire, her sensuous voice full of phlegm and wheeze with "Reason to Cry." Then we are side-tracked with a Bonnie Raitt sort of bluesy thing called "Get Right with God," which needs Raitt's firmness of voice. We get a near recovery, "Bus to Baton Rouge"—great lyrics, same tired delivery. And it all ends with a strange, almost surreal Rickie Lee Jones sort of thing, " Broken Butterflies," (even sounds like a Rickie title), which really needs Rickie Lee's voice to work. Bo Ramsey, lead guitarist on this album, plays his ass off. But it's not enough.
2003 brings us World Without Tears, a new lead guitarist, Doug Pettibone, and, based on the first two cuts—Righteously" and "Ventura," new hope. But after these, we get a rock tribute to a ‘tragic' guitar player that doesn't suit her very well; another of her many tiresome laments for a lost lover that almost works, followed by one that actually does, "Those Three Days," which mixes some spunk with the regret in a good tune, which Pettibone responds happily to. Bottle it girl! Then she gives us another Bonnie Raitt like song, a Pentecostal bluesy show, "Atonement," that it's hard to know what to make of. Pettibone takes a hack at it, reminiscent of early Eric Clapton. He's the best part of the act—but I get the feeling that Lucinda had fun with this, so I won't give her any more grief about it. "Atonement" seems to clear the air, and we are into the good Lucinda vein again with "Sweet Side." Then alas, back into another self-absorbed lament. I can't help thinking it will be a great relief when she gets too old for this! She has lost the youthful brio of LW and CW but can't find her way to the next plateau. This woman needs to know when to write songs and when to wait, while pain and disappointment turn, like cider, as they always do. The title song hasn't got a good enough melody for its lyrics. The album ends peacefully rather than memorably, with "Words Fell."
Which brings us to 2007 and West. For the first few cuts of the new album, I groaned, ‘Oh god, here we go again'…and then things got noticeably better. Not the discipline and plaintive snarl of her best work, which her (always) personal material needs, but definitely on the way. And certainly not the youthful flair, which I must learn to live without. But we get the feeling that something new is afoot and that the new plateau may be in sight. (I wish she had killed the mawkish first few cuts on this disc.) When she gets to "Come On," she seems finally to be out of the slough—and her band is absolutely kick-ass. Guitarist Pettibone is superb, just what the doctor ordered. For the next few cuts, she recovers the firmer, wryer edge we love her for, regains some of the bitter-sweet fun and eloquence of her best stuff. By the time we get to "Wrap My Head Around That," she is in her new place. It's still about her personal material, of course, but she's sardonic, witty—and her band is with her all the way. A great blend of sexy musk and spurs. One of her best songs and performances ever. She coasts home with her last two songs and thankfully refuses to backtrack.
So this album ends up as good as you've heard but it takes a while to get there. Actually, it took the better part of three albums to get there! Perhaps the price we have to pay. "West," the final and title song, both describes and enacts an emotionally calmer, disillusioned, and maturer place than LW and CW. She is a different singer now than she was, as she has to be.
System used for these auditions: Audio Note CDT 2 II transport and Dac 4.1 Balanced Signature, Blue Circle FtTH integrated amplifier, JM Reynaud Offrande Signture speakers. Cabling is Audio Note Sogon, AN-Vx, and Lexus.
Bob Neill, in addition to being an occasional equipment and regular music reviewer for Positive- Feedback Online, is also proprietor of Amherst Audio in Amherst, Massachusetts, which sells equipment from Audio Note, Blue Circle, Manley Labs, JM Reynaud, and TG Audio Lab, among others.