Woman's Work

No one sings in Dust, at least not in the old-fashioned sense, although the performances demanded virtuoso moments of pitch and timing. Ashley himself embodies an urbane intimacy reminiscent of Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon improvisations. In their harmonies, speech patterns, constant digressions, and, yes, utter sense of fun, Ashley's operas give the cumulative impression of a single extended work. The epitome of pop-art perfection, it's both ritual and diversion— television of the future. — Richard Gehr

Earth Mother

Since the '50s, nearly all jazz singers have stuck to two kinds of material: overdone old songs and neglected old songs. With the exception of Abbey Lincoln. Apart from being the last surviving member of the sorority of great jazz ladies that extends from Billie Holiday to Betty Carter, Lincoln is easily jazz's most gifted songwriter since Jon Hendricks. She provides us with a thrill taken for granted in other genres but rare among jazz vocalists: we eagerly anticipate her new releases not least to hear her new compositions.

And she never lets us down. "Wholly Earth," which was both the focal point of her recent weeklong engagement at the Blue Note and the title of her seventh Verve album, attempts a God-like view of the planet, after the fashion of Wayne Shorter's The All-Seeing Eye. Her songs typically focus on philosophy, and display a tightly crafted marriage of words and music. At the same time, her interpretive skills are so strong (she's that rare jazz auteur who, like Thelonious Monk, has a signature rhythm, a kind of humpty-dumpty medium-fast beat) that she can accommodate the works of others within her stylistic universe, as she does with the homespun revelations of "If I Only Had a Brain" (complete with verse) and the psychedelic imagery of "Midnight Sun" and "Mr. Tambourine Man."

It's too often reported that artists like Lincoln aren't as good on record as they are in person. Lincoln's recordings, however, afford her the opportunity to collaborate with such worthy constituents as Nicholas Payton and Bobby Hutcherson, a virtual coleader here. The vibes master primarily backs Lincoln on marimba, giving the group the exotic texture Lincoln needs for her blend of jazz and world music. Surprisingly welcome is a second voice belonging to one Maggie Brown, who helps Lincoln emphasize the title phrase of Wholly Earth's opener, "And It's Supposed To Be Love." With its catchy hook and erotic imagery, "Supposed To Be Love"could easily be marketed by Verve as Lincoln's breakthrough pop single. — Will Friedwald

Scat Power

When Lea DeLaria scats, she uses enough body English to wind Big Ben. Her right knee pumps up; her fingers fidget as if she were playing a tenor sax and pierce the air as if she were sewing. The scatting itself is expert. On "How High the Moon," she dips and soars, squeals and grunts in a trumpeting tribute to— but not imitation of— Ella Fitzgerald. Moving around the tiny Joe's Pub stage in a double-breasted black suit, she looks like Buddy Hackett doing a command performance at the Sands.

Like Bette Midler before her, DeLaria proves that the art of stand-up comedy and the art of belting are not mutually exclusive. She started as a lesbian comic so far out on a limb she was flying. She proved she could connect in Broadway musicals (On the Town— "I Can Cook, Too" and wear a dress) and Off-Broadway gag plays (The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told). But now she demonstrates she can channel these masteries into jazz singing.

Fronting a sassy, solid trio (Whitney Ashe on piano, Mary Ann McSweeney on bass, Barbara Merjan on drums), DeLaria sails easily through the Rodgers and Hart "Dancing on the Ceiling" but not before explaining she has a crush on Chelsea Clinton. She tackles "Empty Bed Blues," but not before she lofts more remarks on her own one-night stands. She intones "You're Changed," but not without exposing a broken heart. Flaws? Very occasionally pitch eludes her. But this is big-time big-time — David Finkle

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