Looking for Better Than That

Figuring Out Who’s in Tune as the Smoke Clears

Jeanie Bryson's first album in six years, Deja Blue (Koch), on the other hand, is not to be missed. But it is hardly the unalloyed delight it ought to be. Bryson and arranger Ted Brancato have revived the indefensible Fender Rhodes, which is going around like flu; combined with vibes and guitar it insinuates an arid 1970s sound at odds with Bryson's gift for economical heat. Still, it boasts a masterpiece, "Am I Blue," a slow and steady composite of vulnerability, mockery, and assurance in an elegant arrangement that begins with Christian McBride bowing "Con Alma." Ethel Waters's version has had no peers for three-quarters of a century, but it does now. Having paid homage to Peggy Lee on the memorable Some Cats Know, Bryson shows how deeply she has absorbed Lee's lessons of directness and thrift. Here and on other tracks, including two solid vehicles by her mother, Connie Bryson, "Deja Blue" and "Do You Sometimes Think of Us" (a third, "Sadness," is trite and doesn't sit well with her voice), her lightly smoky contralto gives each tale its due. She gives the players room—Steve Nelson has a pointed vibes solo on the title cut—and effortlessly holds her own in a duet with Etta Jones. But beginning with Phoebe Snow's "Poetry Man," she is distracted and the listener deadened by Fender-bent charts that may evoke nostalgia for her, but mean root canal to me. She is better than that. "Am I Blue" is legions better than that.

Etta Jones also pops up on Vanessa Rubin's Girl Talk (Telarc), which peaks early with a confidently swung "Comes Love" and—notwithstanding Jones shaking it up on "But Not for Me"; hearty solos by Cedar Walton, Javon Jackson, Larry Willis, and others; and a battle-of-the-sexes concept—succumbs to good manners, supper club conventions, and intransigent songs. Cannonball Adderley could make something of "Matchmaker, Matchmaker," but not even he could have salvaged "Loving You"—singers are better than that. The other Etta, however, knows no restraints in her conceptually similar CD, Blue Gardenia. Etta James, whose influence on young white women singers may have finally displaced that of Aretha, has sung jazz standards since the beginning, but has usually shied away from jazz settings—maybe because Dinah Washington once cleared a nightclub table of glasses and chased her off the stage for singing "Unforgettable." Her voice is heavier now, at times strained, but her phlegmatic phrasing and imperious melisma give the familiar material (including Dinah homages "This Bitter Earth" and "Blue Gardenia") a backbeat tang that is nothing if not genuine—no forced metaphors or compromises.

Jeanie Bryson: directness and thrift
photo: Glade Bilby II
Jeanie Bryson: directness and thrift

For honesty without melisma and with an evenly dispatched beat, the new release by the FDR of lyrics readers, my pal Rosemary Clooney, is exemplary. Backed by a vigorous neoswing big band, Matt Catingup's Big Kahuna and the Copa Cat Back, her Sentimental Journey (Concord) might be distributed as a textbook in meaning what you sing. Much of the charm redounds to her equipment, which has sacrificed range and purity but not personality or distinction. Yet the voice alone cannot explain why when she sings "I'll Be Around," you feel comforted; or why when she intones a line like "I got my bag, got my reservation," you think bags and reservations; or how she manages to invest "I Got a Right to Sing the Blues" with unmistakable pride; or, best of all, following a canny 1950s block-chord piano solo, how she uncovers a world of irony in "You Go to My Head." Clooney made many compromised records in her heyday. What a shame if Bryson, Krall, and others wait as long to assert their own best instincts. Listening to her, an honest singer, the weight of the day begins to lift.

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