Charmed and Blue: Retta Christie with David Evans and Dave
Jazz at its best has an in the moment spontaneity which is fed
in equal parts by the feel/mood of the artists, audience and venue. Another
equally compelling aspect of jazz has been its ability to draw from divergent
sources to create a single piece of work.
The new album by vocalist Retta Christie is one of the best
recent embodiments of this ethos. It is a trio date with Retta doubling on
brushes and David Evans on saxophone and clarinet. Composer/pianist/vocalist
Dave Frishberg is heard here solely on piano.
Country, country swing and that brief time frame when hot jazz
was morphing into what would become the big band era have in common the fact
that none of them in their initial conceptions were as rigid in defining what
would constitute their over all make up as would happen a few years down the
line. Lack of restrictions, when harnessed correctly, can make for a
stimulating freedom. This album mirrors and embraces those bygone
The songs, mostly culled from the 1920s and 1930s
incorporate to varying degrees, elements of country swing, (hot) jazz and
saloon songs. Each song utilizes elements from these genres but within each
song the proportion of inspiration culled from these musical sources varies.
For me, part of the appeal of this album is that it transcends standing firmly
in one genre.
From the opening lines of Cheatin on Me,
Rettas perfect diction is made apparent . A singer with great technique,
she never sounds as if she is slumming it by singing music which
does not demand blatant virtuosity in its execution. Repeated listenings to
this album actually made me even more impressed with her delivery possessing,
as it does, a seemingly casual grace.
The piano has almost stride-ish brakes which do not sound
contrary to the main country swing cadence of the song. On saxophone David has
a warm ethereal quality, building off of Lester Young as he was in his salad
days of the pre-fragile beauty he later embodied.
Often new recordings of the older period/genre, specific music
lapses into a kitschy lightweight version but here all three artists convey a
great authenticity for the music. To strive for too much authenticity can be a
trap too, as the players may be able to play a piece as it had been played but
then when it is time to inject a bit of themselves into the mix they are left
with the choice of playing something which, being birthed from the experiences
of a different era sounds wrong or to play completely in the pieces
style becomes a pantomime of something under museum glass. Because of the
elusive nature of this albums genre, this never becomes an issue.
Wallflower Lonely, Cornflower Blue is an original by
Dave Frishberg from the 1960s. It easily strolls across several genres
using the blues as its foundation as if there were a late night gin joint in
the basement of the Grand Ole Opry. Billy Holiday used her voice more like a
musician than a singer, Ben Webster knew the words to every song he ever
played. In that same vein, Daves piano playing for the entire album shows
that he could have easily been known primarily as a great accompanist. Being a
singer himself has made him intuitively know the spot on colorations with which
he fills the album.
A new trend which I have noticed being utilized by artists on
smaller labels is forgoing the digital perfection which studios today offer.
The digitally perfect music is often accompanied by a certain coldness which
gives the feeling of musicians like goldfish in their tiny glass containers
recording their parts. This album has a fun, loose but never sloppy feel which
is evidenced by the interplay of the band and also put forth by the ambient
warmth to be heard. Throughout the sound is very good, to have had it pristine
would be to freeze dry music of this type.
Louise is another favorite track of mine. Here, this
tune from 1929 is taken as an instrumental. On this piece as well as others
Retta can be heard on brushes. With her brush playing, she is actually rather
good, no percussive dilettante. As subtle as her brushwork is, it does provide
a snappy forward motion to the piece. Nowhere on the album does her brushwork
come across as mere sonic grout to fill in aural space. Daves piano work
here also shows a percussive aspect, the perfect dance partner for mademoiselle
brushes. Davids sax is a study in romanticism tinged wistfully blue.
Although two members of this trio double up on what they are
playing there is no studio wizardry involved. A testament to the great sympathy
with which they all interact is the very full and emotive sound created by this
happy three. All the solos are compelling by there is nothing here done merely
for virtuosities sake. Restraint can be equally impressive and usually
goes hand in hand with taste.
The Thrill is Gone is a ballad so popular as to have
almost lost all its tension. On this album it is performed as a duo between the
two Daves. As many versions of the song as there now are, this one brings
something new to the table. It has less that plaintive West Coast Cool voicing
and more of an urbane blues. Daves piano here is a strolling blues with
neo-classical swells and rapid percussive runs. Davids sax here is the
voice of a friend who knows the ways of the world but has not let it jade him.
This Cold War With You has clever lyrics and the
late night melancholy of a last call. David here is heard on clarinet. There
are many multi-reedists out there but often they have a main instrument and
play the other one sort of like the first as if some sonic poor country cousin.
Although Davids personality is ever present regardless of what he is
playing his sound and approach on clarinet greatly differs. His tone on
clarinet is rich and woody. At times it murmurs its truth at other times it
bubbles like mirthful laughter.
There was no point on this album I felt the need to press the
track advance, its all good as they say. The musical components (country
swing, salon songs et al) which make up this album are important parts of a
vanishing Americana, a cultural heritage. While that sounds full of gravitas,
this album is also a lot of toe tapping fun which I highly recommend.
For more information on Retta and to buy the album try:
Maxwell will return with more adventures in sound -