What Love Is
Great things often come humbly disguised. While not the perfect metaphor, it comes pretty close to describing vocalist Alyssa Graham's new recording What Love Is. A self-produced effort, and I mean that literally as Miss Graham and her ensemble recorded these 11 selections in Miss Graham's one-bedroom apartment on New York City's Upper West Side, What Love Is proves possession of intimacy and empathy not possible in the sterile confines of the studio. In fact, What Love Is more closely approximates a quiet, well-behaved live date.
Her fourth recorded effort, What Love Is, is also Miss Graham's most fully-realized release to date. Concentrating specifically on standards, the singer and her musical director, Jordan Perlson, more sharply focus the instrumental and vocal muses. Reinterpreting the familiar is in an educational sense an excellent way to introduce jazz to the novice, particularly if done in a thoughtful and conservative way. It is in this respect that Miss Graham is most successful.
Perfectly capable of vocal pyrotechnics, Miss Graham remains close to the melody, accomplishing two important goals in the bargain: one, showing off her beautifully-controlled and sumptuous voice, unclouded by unnecessary experimentation and, two, by presenting straight melodies to standards that new listeners will eventually hear performed instrumentally and with careful listening will better understand.
Saxophonist Lester Young made it a point to know all of the lyrics to the standards he performed. That enabled him to produce music with the added dimension of cognizance, deepening the earthy sensuality of his playing. Conversely, jazz vocalists often help reveal the pathos behind instrumental interpretations of the songs they sing. In Miss Graham's case, listening to her weave through "Easy Living" enables the listener to understand Young's head and solos of the same composition.
Miss Graham assembles a crack, swinging ensemble for What Love Is. The singer augments her enduring guitar/piano quartet (guitarist Doug Graham, drummer Jordan Perlson, pianists Jonathan Anderson and Garry Dial, and bassist Evan Gregor) with Matt Shulman's trumpet and Zachary Colwell's tenor saxophone and flute. Together, the group executes with an easy, intelligent swing, never accelerating into solo or technical excess. This is appropriately and thankfully, "just the facts, ma'am..." music.
Trumpeter Shulman performs muted on most of his appearances, providing muscular and compelling accompaniment and solos, particularly on "Easy Living" and "You Don't Know What Love Is." On the latter piece, Graham and Shulman supported by an organically-grown harmonic underpinning thoroughly removes the ballad from the gravitational pull of Chet Baker and flings it to the edge of the musical galaxy. Miss Graham does the same with saxophonist Colwell on "One for My Baby," loosening Sinatra's tight grip on the Harold Arlen classic, revealing some of the song's other veiled treasures.
The greatest simpatico is between Miss Graham and her husband, guitarist Doug Graham. He plays cool on acoustic on "Easy Living," switching to hotter electric on "I'll Remember April." Mr. and Mrs. Graham meet perfectly on the surprise cover of Neil Young's "Don't Let It Bring You Down." Here, the Graham's take possession of the piece, making it their own as they transform Young's bleak ballad of revolution into the harmonically earthy jazz hybrid that put Cassandra Wilson on the map. Doug Graham plays a soulful acoustic slide guitar that rubs against Jonathan Anderson's understated piano and Alyssa Graham's resigned with hope lyric presentation.
It is a pleasure to receive and review a recording as well conceived and performed as What Love Is. Miss Graham and Company have turned in a first rate jazz vocal offering. I recommend this disc to the fussiest of my jazz friends and music colleagues.
Being perpetually late in all this past year, I am retroactively adding What Love Is to my best releases of 2005 article, "C. Michael Bailey's Best of 2005" previously published in the internet jazz magazine All About Jazz.
Tracks: Easy Living; I'll Remember April; September In The Rain; Don't Let It Bring You Down; I Can't Get Started; Chega De Saudade; I Didn't Know What Time it Was; You Don't Know What Love Is; A Beautiful Friendship; Like Someone In Love; One For My Baby.
Personnel: Alyssa Graham: Vocals; Doug Graham: Guitar; Jordan Perlson: Drums & Percussion; Jonathan Anderson, Garry Dial: piano; Matt Shulman: Trumpet; Zachary Colwell: Tenor Saxophone & Flute.
© Copyright, C. Michael Bailey, 2006