Monday, February 29, 2016

Recorded in central Indiana using a host of Hoosier musicians, "Steal Away" showcases an adept jazz singer, Erin Benedict

Secure singing from a jazz vocalist has to rely more than pulling tricks out of a bag. There's security of intonation, for one thing. Then a feeling for rhythm that doesn't require adherence to the accompaniment, but always knows its place in relation to it.

Singer Erin Benedict and pianist Gary Walters.
This is what is available from Erin Benedict on "Steal Away," a disc recorded last year in Alexandria at the Gaither Studios (Straight Tone Music). The accompaniments have a quartet core, led by Gary Walters at the piano. Arrangements take in a string orchestra and a big band, sometimes in combination. There are flavorful sax solos along the way by Michael Stricklin.

The singer has a degree from the Manhattan School of Music and, while in New York, found work as a backup singer. Now in Indianapolis with her family, she can frequently be heard in Second@Six presentations at Second Presbyterian Church. That's where I first encountered her two years ago in a Shrove Tuesday concert.

Thoughtful in the breakup ballad "Where Do You Start," ardent in "How Deep Is the Ocean," pious in the title song, the beloved spiritual, Benedict is right at home in a variety of material. She inhabits the words. The second and third songs alone provide an apt comparison: "You Must Believe in Spring" is wistful and full of hope, which is enhanced by a kind of jazz bel canto as Benedict scats along with a solo flute. "Old Devil Moon" follows, opening with a plucked bass line the only accompaniment to Benedict's surely placed voice. The four-to-the-bar swing suits her as easily as the Latin pulse that "You Must Believe in Spring" settles into.

Here's something about singing well that is sometimes as forgotten in jazz-pop vocalism as it is in opera. As a young opera singer in Russia, Feodor Chaliapin sought a stage actor's advice about a role he wasn't sure was right for him. The actor mocked opera singers' habit of finding every role they're engaged to play unsuitable; the opposite, he said, is more likely to be the case: "I believe you are not suited to it," the actor said, then demanded: "Read it to me."
Feodor Chaliapin (1873-1938)

Chaliapin was confused, the anecdote in "Man and Mask" continues. Was he supposed to read aloud the Pushkin poem that gave rise to the opera? No, the actor replied: "Read it as you usually do — by singing it." What the actor meant became clear after the basso complied by singing the aria that was troubling him.  The translator of the Chaliapin memoir pinpoints the difficulty a little confusingly, as the actor responds this way: "The intonations by which you interpret your character are false."

We are used to  thinking of intonation as being true to pitch, neither above nor below it. In that conventional sense of intonation, Benedict is unassailable. The "intonations" Chaliapin was instructed to correct meant matching the tonal requirements of the vocal line to the meaning of the text.

The songs on this CD aren't opera roles, of course. Interestingly, the only song whose style Benedict violates is the one opera aria: "I Loves You, Porgy" (the second word sung as "love," as is often the case with singers uncomfortable with dialect). I don't get here the fulfillment of the Russian actor's "read it to me" advice; the overblown soaring of Benedict's voice works against the meaning of the text, a plea whose passion should be somewhat abashed as Bess implores Porgy's protection.

On everything else, Benedict's "reading" skills are  intact. You can delight in her accuracy — the usual sense of "intonation" — as well as in the meaning she grasps in one song after another.

To paraphrase Chaliapin's coach: The intonations by which she interprets the character of nearly every song here are true. Along with the spiffily played, imaginative arrangements, that well-honed knack makes "Steal Away" a gem. Beautiful in and of itself, Benedict's singing is also vitally informed by her reading.