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JAZZ SPOTLIGHT

A dash of Sarah and Billie, but all Jackie

September 21, 2003|Don Heckman | Special to The Times

Jackie Ryan

"This Heart of Mine"

(OpenArt Records)

*** 1/2

The San Francisco-based singer is still far too little known, and it's hard to understand why. With guests saxophonist Ernie Watts and harmonica artist Toots Thielemans paralleling her sumptuous vocal lines, Ryan presents a 14-song program displaying the length and breadth of her skills. She sings "Estate" in the original Italian, soaring up from gorgeous low tones to sweeping high notes. Some of her readings -- "A Sleeping Bee" for one -- are reminiscent of the lush combinations of rich sound and melodic variation typical of Sarah Vaughan. Other tunes resonate with the sardonic qualities of Billie Holiday ("East of the Sun," for example). But she does all this without sacrificing any of her own engaging skills. Ryan is the real deal.

Barbara Sfraga

"Under the Moon" (A440 Music)

*** 1/2

Sfraga is yet another singer whose talent far exceeds her visibility. Although she concentrates on the familiar standards repertoire, she does so in startlingly innovative fashion. Accompanied only by guitar, bass and drums, she quite literally deconstructs tunes such as "Prelude to a Kiss," "Star Dust" and "Mood Indigo," viewing them from constantly shifting, ever-fascinating musical perspectives. She sings "I've Grown Accustomed to His Face" in a floating 5/4 meter, transforms "You've Changed" into a brisk samba and "Sophisticated Lady" into an unexpectedly bright waltz. This is jazz singing at its cutting-edge best, evidence -- far more than you find in Diana Krall's recent studio recordings -- of the art's capacity for creative expansion and evolution.

Lou Rawls

"Rawls Sings Sinatra"

(Savoy Jazz)

***

You can say this about any Rawls CD: There's never any doubt about who you're hearing. Rawls combines one of the jazz world's most immediately identifiable vocal sounds with a fine ear for lyrics and a loose-limbed, jaunty sense of phrasing. All of which serves him well in this collection of tunes associated with Ol' Blue Eyes. The big-band settings have an appropriately retro quality. But Rawls' readings -- especially in numbers such as the "My Kind of Town/Chicago" medley and the closing "One for My Baby" (accompanied only by Mike Melvoin's soulful piano playing) -- are timeless examples of primo jazz vocalizing.

Dianne Reeves

"A Little Moonlight" (Blue Note)

***

Reeves' superbly focused sound and articulate phrasing shine in this attractive new outing. Unlike her previous album "The Calling," a tribute to Sarah Vaughan in which she was surrounded by vibrant orchestral textures, she's accompanied here by pianist Peter Marin, bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Gregory Hutchinson, with guitarist Romero Lubambo and trumpeter Nicholas Payton making brief appearances. The results are intimate, minimalist renderings of classics such as "Skylark," "You Go to My Head" and "We'll Be Together Again," with several particularly appealing efforts in tunes in which she is partnered with Lubambo's empathetic guitar playing -- especially a bossa nova-tinged "I Concentrate On You."

Stacey Kent

"The Boy Next Door"

(Candid Records)

** 1/2

There's a lot to like about Kent's buoyant collection of standards, delivered in upbeat fashion with a supportive quartet. She is at her best in brightly rhythmic tunes -- "The Trolley Song," "Ooh-Shoo-Be-Doo-Bee" -- and pop tunes ("You've Got a Friend" and "Bookends") that best display her feathery rhythmic swing and her engaging storytelling qualities. Less effective are the darker tunes -- "I Get Along Without You Very Well," "I Got It Bad" -- in which her girlish sound and cool-toned delivery fail to capture the songs' deep emotional layering.

Curtis Stigers

"You Inspire Me" (Concord Jazz)

** 1/2

Stigers has the likable sound and the solidly musical phrasing of an instrumentalist (he also plays tenor saxophone). His versatility allows him to reach from Joe Jackson ("Fools in Love") and Billy Joel ("She's Got a Way") to John Lennon ("Love") and Irving Berlin ("Blue Skies"). Despite Stigers' admirable individual interpretations, however, the grab bag of selections lacks a clear musical focus. His obvious talents deserve more thoughtful musical production.

Cassandra Wilson

"Glamoured" (Blue Note)

** 1/2

Wilson is so good, so musically talented, so creatively imaginative that it's hard to understand why she continues to release albums in which murkiness seems to be advanced as an attribute. As in her other recent outings, she combines far-ranging selections (Sting's "Fragile," Bob Dylan's "Lay, Lady, Lay" and Muddy Waters' "Honey Bee" among them) with laid-back, chattery sounds of guitars, bass and percussion. Occasional individual selections stand out -- especially Wilson's introspective originals -- but ultimately the unrelenting sameness of tone fails to capture one's attention.

Aaron Neville

"Nature Boy: The Standards Album" (Verve)

**

There's a ton of jazz and pop firepower in Neville's first serious foray into the standards repertoire. Linda Ronstadt duets with the New Orleans veteran on "The Very Thought of You," Roy Hargrove and Michael Brecker offer instrumental solos on several tracks and the basic backup ensemble consists of keyboardist Rob Mounsey, guitarist Anthony Wilson, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Grady Tate. Neville, nonetheless, simply sticks with being Neville. In other words, he sings every number with his signature soaring falsetto, quavery vocal sound and occasional tearful-like glottal leaps. Call it a kind of updated Johnny Mathis approach -- interesting at times, but most effective in the sort of pop tunes, such as Buddy Johnson's "Since I Fell for You," best suited to such an unwaveringly idiosyncratic style.

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