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Female Vocalists in Duo Delights

These personal musical valentines prove that sometimes, in personnel, less is more impact. Maria Jacobs demonstrates the Art of the Duo, mostly with one guitarist or another (or, instead, bass or piano player). Jessica Molaskey's pianist du jour is also her singing partner and the songwriter on display: Dave Frishberg. Joan Watson-Jones presents Quiet Conversations-A Duet, exchanging commentary with pianist Frank Wilkins.


Sassy Free Music

In her fourth album, singer Maria Jacobs presents a stripped-down sound that suits her and emphasizes her communicative, interactive skills. She takes advantage of the intimacy and the back-and-forth energy of singer and sole instrumentalist. In a nine-track CD, she is joined by just guitarist Bob Fraser on the first three numbers, guitarist Steve Cipriano on the next four, then ends the album with a change of instrumental company. We close out with Paul McCartney's "I Will" from the Beatles era with her own arrangement and bassist Tony Dumas and then a romp with "Yeh Yeh" where she's joined by Dan Maier on piano (arrangement by Tamir Hendelman). The results all around are tasty—the kind of listening experience that grabbed me right away for its initial impact and sound—and I happily listened over and over that same day, finding even more impressive nuances in the interplay, phrasing, and the more subtle creative liberties with melody lines. Indeed, Art of the Duo is a fine sample on how to make "two" work best.

There's a real "in the moment" birthing going on here, no sense of automatic pilot. Maria's voice is confident as she negotiates the music and lyrics, really grabbing hold of them and making them her own decidedly non-gushing emotional expressions. The use of musical "white space" in moments of real quiet, the joy and respect of singer and instrumental partner responding to each other are palpable. The re-shaping of musical lines, embellishments, tender jazzy note-bending feel intrinsic and thoughtful, rather than cavalier. It all makes one want to listen harder (and again and again) as new emphases in familiar songs come to light.

The choice for the opener, "Alone Together" (Schwartz & Dietz, from a 1932 Broadway entry, Flying Colors), can hardly be a casual choice as its very subject is the raison d'ĂȘtre of this project, and the intensity of the melody and seriousness of the lyric underscore the intents and purposes like a thesis. Bob Fraser's guitar work on this one creates instant bonding with the vocalist, and it's magnetic when spare or rhapsodic. The much-recorded "Summertime" from Porgy and Bess manages to stay sturdy and intense in the capable guardianship of this singer and her guitarist, Cipriano, as they seem to will the child's good fortune and hopes. At the same time, the duo setting makes for an implied hush and closeness mirroring the one-on-one child comforting, and perhaps allows for some increasing intensity and looseness to happen without rocking the cradle and all. Another item born in musical theatre, Mr. Wonderful's "Too Close for Comfort" would have been the worst possible title song for this CD, as the duo settings never seem close to claustrophobia for Maria and her varying partners. Indeed, she is in a real comfort zone throughout and the two take this theatre song—which has become a swinging jazz favorite over the years—and, playfully, go to town quite wonderfully with it. And that's without making it a self-serving overworked workout.

The shortest track (2:48) on an album of mostly longish outings is the standard "The Nearness of You." Whether or not this was chosen to have a double meaning because of the closeness of songstress and guitarist (Cipriano again) isn't the issue—the point is that it makes its point is a deeply felt way and yet it's short and sweet. A refreshing choice is "Poetry Man" written and made a hit by the late singer Phoebe Snow. Its liquid melodic line and delicate highs really showcase the vocalist's elegant elasticity.

As the album winds down to its final items, and we hear Maria with the non-guitarists, it may make us wish to hear her more with other instruments. As Paul McCartney thought and wrote with the bass in mind, sometimes making preliminary working tapes singing the bass line before words were added, his "I Will" especially is suited to a bass/vocal teaming and Tony Dumas's work makes this piece a heartfelt vow like a heartbeat, just in time for Valentine's Day. (This CD was originally scheduled for the beginning of January, then later in that month, and rescheduled for this week.) I'm marking my calendar for March 16, however, when Maria Jacobs comes to NYC's Metropolitan Room to show her art in person.


Arbors Records

If the marvelous singer Jessica Molaskey and songwriter-pianist-singer Dave Frishberg do a follow-up album to their 2012 release recorded live At the Algonquin and want a Broadway song, the natural choice would be "Mutual Admiration Society." Well-suited as wry writer and amused muse (even though many of the songs were created long before they teamed up), they so clearly revel in each other's company and are such kindred, affectionate spirits. Dave's offhand, sly, understated manner and light singing voice work nicely with Jessica's warmer, richer tones, more versatile theatre-honed/jazz-inflected vocals. Their co-starring gig captured live here at The Oak Room of the Algonquin Hotel followed an earlier one at another posh New York City venue, Feinstein's at Loews Regency (both venues, sadly, closed in the last year). They sing solos and duets and some included talk sets up the songs and fond friendship and respect. What a treat to have it preserved on disc!

Without reinventing them, some familiar Frishberg faves get refreshed (or is it re-Frish-ed?), such as two that happened to be on our recent Top Ten vocal albums of 2012. ("My Attorney, Bernie" was on the Marissa Mulder CD and "Listen Here," originally written for a 1980 TV special for Mary Tyler Moore, was Sue Raney's album's title song.) Jessica has more fun than should legally be allowed mooning over and mocking the legal wiz in Dave's "most requested" number. She has Dave as her piano partner rather than vocal partner on this one, but it still feels like a duet as he's with her every step of the way detailing the slippery steps of that lawyer's ways and wiles. And "Listen Here" (co-written by Alan Broadbent) seems especially appropriate to an act that's all about interactions, as it's about the conversation we each have with our encouraging or nagging inner voice tugging at us. Dave takes this one as a solo at the end of the disc, making his "partner" his own voice in his head. These songs have staying power. "I'm Hip" still is hip and a parody of hipness as both rattle off the behaviors of the would-be cool cats ("I even call my girlfriend 'man,' I'm so hip"). The late Blossom Dearie, an interpreter and sometime collaborator in the world of veteran jazzman Frishberg, is in the air with some of these songs that she favored, as well as a Johnny Mercer number she did, the name-dropping "My New Celebrity Is You." Dave and Jessica add some lyrics to include some new names to it, such as Blossom herself and Molaskey's usual musical (and marital) partner, John Pizzarelli (rhymes with another musician, "Stephane Grappelli," and "deli").

The audience is heard to laugh at the joke lines and seems rapt and wrapped in the glow of the performers' basked-in glow of warmth for each other, personally and professionally. But there's nothing gooey, nor any glopping on of compliments in the included patter. Even if you don't know the playful persona of Frishberg, from the moment things begin, you'd "get it." The opening number is a mock dilemma set to music (wondering which should open the show, punnily borrowing the title of the famed Abbott & Costello routine, "Who's On First?" before they "decide" to share the bill and duet).

For those of us well versed in Frishberg's verses and and jibes, the special treats are two newer items from a musical project about the Algonquin's famous Round Table wit, Dorothy Parker. With some macabre humor, our stars poke fun at Parker's tendency to try (and try again) suicide in "Will You Die?," and Jessica takes on the role of the complex but comically astute Parker in "Excuse Me for Living." Wit meets wit.

Two pros prove that the sum of the parts can be a whole lot more fun—and they are hip.


Eye of Samantha Productions

Aptly titled, Quiet Conversations - A Duet really does often feel like a singer and pianist sharing the spotlight. While our singer, Joan Watson-Jones, is center stage on this (her third album), keyboardist Frank Wilkins phrases and pauses with her, and they seem to share responsibility in taking the lead. At times, she'll sing a line and then he'll play a figure without her and then, to use a basketball metaphor, they continue to pass the ball back and forth. Indeed, they are quite like conversations, although I'm not so sure that the CD's title written as Quite Conversations on the back cover isn't just a typo. Anyway, the album is slowly growing on me and I'm appreciating both artists more after more than a few go-rounds.

Quiet it is, with Joan sometimes cooing a line, whispering a few words, gently intoning a phrase that's spoken rather than sung. Don't expect big, sustained notes. Is it coasting? "Cheating" to compensate for a smallish vocal instrument? Or simply a choice to be sharing thoughts and stories in a very low-key way? Perhaps the answer lies somewhere in between, as the pattern of what is sung and what is semi-sung is not consistent or reserved just for what we're used to hearing as melodic leaps or the highest or lowest notes. Shall we then just use a label that one used to hear more often in past decades: "song stylist"? If so, she must be given credit for communicating with us and with her partner. Certainly the able Wilkins is ready, willing, and able to carry the weight and not overshadow.

The opener, "Here's to Life," brings out the tendency to take it slow, act and speak pithy lines like "I want to play" and "Funny how the time just flies." It's one of the relatively few recent songs to be recorded by a large number of traditional singers whose albums are generally made up of older standards. On several other numbers, Joan's tones are fuller, her lines more legato, the feeling moodier. In the melodically challenging "Wild Is the Wind" she does make it more like a series of brief, separate and spaced breezes than anything resembling a forcefully wild wind and seem to be treading carefully and taking some extra time. It's also another example of the Wilkins piano work commenting and underscoring what she establishes. In a perhaps predictable moment, she sings the line "I hear mandolins" and he plays an approximation of strumming of said instrument. Here and elsewhere, where one might expect/ want a sense of abandon and freedom, things feel more carefully premeditated and tip-toeing. Tempi in general tend to be slow and pensive. They produce glowing, slow-burning embers in their moods where other might spark more of a big fire.

This New England-based chanteuse is quite conscientious about her diction without sounding belabored. Her more kittenish and coy moments, combined with the diction, remind me of Diahann Carroll when she's in her low-key mode, toying with lines and attitudes and reveling in them, though there's no "big" sound for contrast, at least not here.

The sentimental "One More Year," about marking another marital anniversary, features her own lyrics to a melody by former pianist Hakim Law and was the title song of their earlier album. Her own "Yes, Dear" is another kind of series of "conversations"—a look at discussions of errands and cooperation, with some nagging between spouses. It's more about light-heartedness than hearty laughs and has some sitcom "cutes" to it. Songwriter (and singer) Jon Marable is represented by two of his pieces, one of which is the wannabe-playful "You Talk Too Much" about a lover who's so chatty that kissing and romance is tough to work in. But Wilkins has no problem showing his jazz chops and rhythmic sensibilities here. Marable's "You and I" is a somewhat rambling love song of gratitude wherein Mr. Wilkins takes a generous solo that strengthens it.

The highlight of the CD's ten renditions is "Have I Told You Lately," made popular by both its writer, Van Morrison, and Rod Stewart. Everything works here: the pianist and singer show their best united front and separate shining moments, with the timing and tension right on target and the warm, appreciative mood impressively sustained. The pace is ideal. And as an overall change of pace from usual albums, much of this album is quite enjoyable and engaging.

- Rob Lester

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