Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Duchess brings its three sets of vocal cords and six old and new ears to bear upon a varied vocal repertoire

Duchess is a vocal trio whose vocal discipline never smothers its direct appeal.
Jazz vocalists who push scatting and vocalese (new lyrics on old tunes and solos) to the sidelines are fairly rare, particularly when they combine in groups.

Thus Duchess, which on the recorded evidence has a keen jazz sensibility, also draws on an old pop tradition represented by the Andrews Sisters, the Boswell Sisters, and the Mills Brothers. In the trio's second recording, "Laughing at Life" (Anzic Records), the blend is seamless and invigorating. Projecting the lyrics with verve and clarity seems to be a watchword with Amy Cervini, Hilary Gardner and Melissa Stylianou. At the same time, they negotiate clever arrangements with agility and true pitch.

The tempo shifts in "Everybody Loves My Baby" are thrilling, particularly with a couple of lickety-split choruses (to Duchess lyrics)  that are the last word in precision. This song also enjoys idiomatic help from clarinetist Anat Cohen. The selection of guest stars on the disc is unerringly right; besides Cohen, there's the sly, inventive trombonist Wycliffe Gordon,  licking his chops to savor "Stars Fell on Alabama" and "Creole Love Call." Cohen is also featured on the perpetually wistful "We'll Meet Again."

Each of the three singers handles a solo turn more than capably: Cervini on Cole Porter's ode to flirtation, "Give Him the Oo La La," Stylianou on the moody Newley-Bricusse number "Where Would You Be Without Me," and Gardner animating a high-kicking tour through Ray Charles' "Hallelujah I Love Her (Him) So."

The nucleus of accompaniment — pianist Michael Cabe, bassist Matt Aronoff, and drummer Jared Schonig — is always firm in support of the songbirds. Occasional supplementary zest comes from guitarist Jesse Lewis (his acoustic solo on Vet Boswell's "Dawn" is exquisite) and tenor saxophonist Jeff Lederer. The latter contributes some flavorful roadhouse deep-fry to the first track, "Swing Brother Swing."

Enthusiasts of close-harmony vocal jazz and classic pop will find every part of that repertoire range well-covered. To mention just two adjacent tracks: Porter's imperishable "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye" yields to one of Johnny Mercer's inimitable novelty numbers, the teasing portrait of an artistically self-directed ecdysiast, "Strip Polka."

The nonesuchness of Duchess is evident throughout "Laughing at Life," whose title tune alone is a great pick-me-up in these difficult times.

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