Past Reviews

Sound Advice Reviews

Going back to Before:
Looking at singers looking back
Reviews by Rob Lester

We often have our eyes and ears on music from the past in this column, but this time we do so more than usual. Attention turns to four female vocalists, the first two with new recordings that might get the nostalgia fires burning brightly. A few of the songs Rebecca Kilgore sings go back to the 1930s, with each of the next several succeeding decades also represented at least once, while Judy Wexler concentrates just on the 1960s and a bit beyond for pop hits rethought. The other two singers, Roseanna Vitro and Kaylé Brecher, dig into their own pasts by re-releasing material.

CD and Digital

Luckily for lovers of good songs done with taste, the creamy-smooth voice of Rebecca Kilgore has graced dozens of collections released over the last few decades, as main attraction or guesting with jazz colleagues. Now she's got a fine set of 13 numbers with her disarmingly unfussy singing accompanied by pianist Randy Porter and bassist Tom Wakeling, the talented and suavely swinging gentlemen she's often toured with.

The Rebecca Kilgore Trio: Vol. 1 can be sweet without getting sticky, often luxuriating in visions of the past, such as the cozy old Nat King Cole hit that itself is a celebration of a favorite romantic time, "That Sunday, That Summer." Also suggesting days of old, "Old Soft Shoe" enchants with dance images and a lyric that name-drops Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers; Dave Frishberg's chatty "Dear Bix" imagines Hoagy Carmichael addressing jazzman Bix Beiderbecke.

There are a few numbers here that Rebecca Kilgore has recorded in the past with other musicians. One is the post-breakup plaint and plight, "Talking to Myself About You" and this time the singer has added her own brief introductory verse to the 1948 work. The two show tunes here were also on prior Kilgore sets and both have music by Richard Rodgers. There's "There's a Small Hotel" (lyric by Lorenz Hart, from On Your Toes), which epitomizes the trio's skill at painting a rosy glow with afterglow potential, and then there's a brisk, not-so-hot-and-bothered fuming that "The Gentleman Is a Dope" (the item from Rodgers & Hammerstein's Allegro that's had the strongest life of its own). Alas, unlike her last time around singing about said dope, the introductory verse is not heard.

Bliss, both imagined and vibrantly experienced, are expressed in, respectively, Nellie McKay's wide-eyed wish "I Wanna Get Married" from earlier in this century and 1939's "Day In, Day Out" (Rube Bloom/ Johnny Mercer). Two especially welcome and charmingly treated choices from movie musicals are the very cute and peppy Harry Warren/ Mack Gordon "Run, Little Raindrop, Run," introduced in Springtime in the Rockies and "Because We're Kids" from the odd The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T with music by Frederick Hollander and words by Dr. Seuss.

Don't look for big highs and lows of emotion at this relaxed party where melodrama is not on the invitation list. While the two musicians can share the singer's twin comfort zones of laidback lilt and breezy serenity, they add a kick in the nick of time when you think the unruffled vocal persona may make for maybe too calm a sail on the musical sea. Cornet player Dick Titterington (who is also the singer's husband) guests on two lesser-known, more recent compositions ("Somebody Just Like You" by Meredith D'Ambrosio/ Dan Davis and "Like the Brightest Star" by Harry Allen/ Gregg Oppenheimer). He adds very effective color and mood to an already bright picture of Vol. 1, the latest feather in the voluminously feathered cap of Rebecca Kilgore, a silky-voiced singer whose understated ease and aplomb speak volumes for her musicianship and skill set.

Jewel City Jazz
CD and digital

With 2021's 20/20 hindsight—and insight—a look back at some iconic non-bubble gum hits from the decade of the 1960s (and a bit beyond) can make "golden oldies" seem to have a glow that is different than just rosy nostalgia. Those who lived through, danced to, and are ready to review the period's potent pop might hear this sixth release by Judy Wexler, Back to the Garden, and have their emotional memories triggered so that the long-ago doesn't feel so very long ago. To invoke the title of one of the included songs that I find a major highlight, "Who Knows Where the Time Goes?," they might shrug, wincingly, the question resonating more than ever. Those who are familiar with the original hits but did not grow up with the music might agree that the songs seem to have "grown up" and matured through the thoughtful and intelligent ways they are caringly put under the microscope. There are no copycat retreads here. Tasteful jazz-inflected settings for the band, with most arrangements by pianist Jeff Colella, and pensive but pretty singing make us listen perhaps more attentively.

There are only ten tracks, which seems like a paltry sampling of a rich well of possible candidates from the performer's same-themed live shows over the years. Back to the Garden's title references a line in Joni Mitchell's ode to the famous music festival of "Woodstock," but oddly that piece from 1970 which the warm-voiced Wexler has included in live shows, is not included. Another Mitchell hit, "Big Yellow Taxi," hailing from the same year, is along for the ride, happily and convincingly raising consciousness again about commercialism, the environment, etc. The compensation for the small number of tracks is that most are on the longer side. This is due in part to many being at slow tempi, which may indeed reduce the risk of thoughts flashing by without enough space and time to chew on them, but it can also take some of the bite and urgency away from protest songs. To flip the phrase coined by Shakespeare, the lady doth not protest too much, methinks. For example, "For What It's Worth" could stand to be more taut, unsettling and unblinking in its foreboding and observation of conflict. Likewise (and more so), Bob Dylan's strong-medicine warning that "The Times They Are A-Changin'" with its accusations and rallying cry becomes de-fanged. Gorgeous as the legato, honey-coated singing and silky-smooth accompaniment certainly are to my ears, what was once a wake-up call risks becoming a sleepy soothing balm. This approach, however, is spot on for the other Dylan item on the set list: the kind-hearted wish that the addressee have good fortune and remain "Forever Young."

"Up on the Roof" is a splendid example of how a canny singer and arranger can refresh something that has already had a few differently distinctive treatments. By making some shifts, words not usually getting the stress in its lines now get the emphasis ("... all my cares just drift into space" and "... all that rat race noise down in the street"). While this is an endearing, uncomplicated portrait of respite, Judy Wexler can also dig deeper. Her nuanced handling of Paul Simon's "American Tune" captures its wistful melancholy and doesn't shy away from its sense of defeat. Vulnerable and touching, with strings appearing to underscore the mood, it makes this Garden bloom its brightest.

Skyline Records
CD and digital

Listen to Listen Here and I bet you wouldn't think it was the very first album of a singer, because she seems so very confident and polished. Spoiler alert: It was a debut release. First released in the mid-1980s as a vinyl record album—yes, back in the years B.C.D. (before CDs)—Roseanna Vitro's freshman foray certainly was a harbinger of a successful career that has continued to the present, with gigs and recordings and accolades, with next month set to find the talented lady as lead artist on a recording project tributing jazz giant Charlie Parker.

Filled with quality songs that jazz vocalists favored then/before/since, the Vitro voice is juicy, the material sounds owned and understood, and Listen Here is a nicely balanced showcase for vivacious versatility. Settling comfortably into different types of material, she sails smoothly through brisk Jobim bossa novas, thoughtful ballads, and a hyper-energized take on "You Took Advantage of Me," the Rodgers & Hart confection first used in their 1928 score for Present Arms.

With a small but stellar band, the singer is in very good hands. So is the piano, literally, as it's being played by the skillful Kenny Barron (who had already worked with Dizzy Gillespie and Stan Getz), with the exception of the demanding dazzler of a jazz piece called "Centerpiece," when Bliss Rodriguez is at the keys. Buster Williams is on bass and the drummer is Ben Riley, with a few other gents guesting here and there. The splendid, engaging arrangements are by Fred Hersch, a pianist of special talent, though not so employed here, he's also the associate producer, while producer credit goes to Paul Wickliffe who's also played another long-term role in the songstress's life: husband.

Roseanna Vitro had already been singing professionally in different settings and had done her studying, all of which clearly paid off to give her a running head-start for these 12 numbers, all recorded on one day. Everything sounds fresh, even to the ears of this listener to Listen Here in 2021 after having heard these numbers sung by many others over many years. The love-besotted standards "You Go to My Head" and "It Could Happen to You" hold up well and are a treat as is "Easy Street"—not the same-titled strut from the musical Annie, but a breezy dream of idyllic life from 1940. Phrasing is always savvy and very present in its shadings and there's some impressive but not too showy jazz colorations of notes and scatting. Legato or crisply parsed, the words deliver their moods and messages. The jazz style and a prevailing smile—or the potential of one—keep tears and sentimentality at bay and far away.

The sensitive lyrics of Paul Francis Webster make for some welcome drama handled with care on the Oscar-nominated "A Time for Love" (Johnny Mandel's melody) and "Black Coffee" (Sonny Burke's music) capturing long and lonely hours absorbing a lover's leaving. Included in the reissue are the original liner notes by Steve Allen whose songs would make up the full set list for Roseanna Vitro's follow-up visit to a recording studio (although not released next). To quote the concise statement that was the last sentence of those notes: "She's here to stay." His prediction has proven to be right.

Penchant Four Records
CD and digital

Google the name of singer Kaylé Brecher plus the word "unique" and you'll find many a review, article, and promotional piece using that description. Listen to her a bit and you'll hear why it's been the go-to adjective. The voice is elastic and ethereal, the arrangements of songs you thought you knew are often wildly reimagined and drenched in atmosphere, while the genre-defying pieces she wrote herself don't follow typical forms or structures. Bredux: Collected Edges gathers up previously issued tracks, heavily leaning on those from one release called Spy Music, with both versions of its title track from 2005. Featuring her own lyrics, the twisting melody credited to Sheldon Peterson serves as a vehicle for some intense vocal gymnastics that don't rely on singing actual words.

Show tune alert: West Side Story's urging to be "Cool" is precisely that, in its way, but it sure does sizzle and heat up, too, in this fervently personalized take. Open-minded fans of theatre music may find it true to the essence of the message and truly adventurous.

Kaylé Brecher grabs onto an attitude and mindset in her renditions, exploring melodies' foundations, and then finds the path not taken and doubles down or passes the baton to the band. She often gives over much time to the musicians to create even more side trips to unpredictable territory which can be provocative and/or perplexing. Especially on a first listen, you may find yourself more impressed with the range and risk-taking in performances and trippy trappings than with the (possibly upstaged) material itself. Sounds heard include fierce guitar, lots of percussion, cameo appearances by sousaphone and piccolo; the Brecher-penned "So Complicated" (not an inappropriate description for some things here) becomes a saxophone summit bringing in four players. One of her original works, "Choices," may test concentration and engagement since it lasts ten minutes.

Two familiar numbers have origins as French songs, and both are sung with their English lyrics. Of these, "Autumn Leaves" takes far more liberties with the melody—what's left of it. Rather than resting on a bed of leaves, it reclines on a psychiatrist's couch, memories more tortured, moods more complex, although the longing for the missed lover is not missing in (the very busy) action. While the singer is solely credited with all other arrangements on Bredux, here she's co-billed on that task with the estimable pianist on this and most tracks, David Dzubinski. "Under Paris Skies" offers something sunnier and simpler and has some sway along the way.

The expression "acquired taste" may be a cliché, but it applies to this unconventional, skilled performer and the kind of soundscapes sculpted here. At their best, the results can be compelling and a welcome change of pace, even when the more abstract and daring doings make one feel like an intrigued stranger in a strange land with no compass and no map—a kind of Brecher-bred Brigadoon.