Five minutes into this surprising record I found myself remembering the “Slim’s Spins” column from back in September 2006. “I think Jazz vocals present a special case of falling through the cracks,” she wrote. Her general point was that contemporary audiences attracted to vocal music tend to gravitate to one of a variety of pop genres, while contemporary hardcore Jazz audiences tend to dismiss virtually all vocal music out of hand. This account no doubt generalizes, but in my personal experience of Jazz fans it rings true. For a dedicated vocal artistlike Sophie Duner, who recorded The Rain in Spain with a quartet both innovative and tight, the situation potentially leaves her no way to win. To compound these difficulties she can’t escape, Duner is a thinkera singer doubtless deliberate in her resolve not to do the things that audiences expect Jazz vocalists to do. But for audiences who really believe that Jazz is beyond category, this record offers not only numerous virtues but also veritable pleasures. For starters, Duner will sing about love, but not in ways you’re likely to have heard before. Pop vocalists tend to celebrate new love, singing of confused hearts and spinning heads; Jazz vocalists are expected to be more urbane, having seen it all before“My Old Flame” etc. Duner offers songs that are neither the one nor the other. In the outstanding “Jack the Ripper” she continues to love a man whom she knows to be unworthy, but not so much because she’s a helpless victim as because she finds a peculiar aesthetic thrill in it all. In “Marionettes” (a figure that shows up in two of her songs) she seems to tout the virtues of men whom she can control, except that “they hang you up, they hang you down.” How parse the ambiguity of this transition: “Marionettes are good to have in bed / Marionettes are good as long as they are in your head.” Does their being in your head suggest that they are manipulative, or that the lover has them in mind. Presumably both. In “The Fight” she calls on her lover to “be my guide,” but later affirms that “I just wanna be in charge.” The song ends as she calls to her lover to “give me all the reasons to be me.” These are all songs about love, but love is in none of them separate from or superior to the struggle to form her own identity. None of this is writing designed to win instant recognition from mass audiences. This is not writing calculated for radio play. Nevertheless, it isn’t their somewhat idiosyncratic lyrics that most make Duner’s songs memorable, but their demonstrable yet original form.More than merely “compositions” such as are familiar to listeners of improvised music, these deserve to be called “songs”even if they don’t observe the usual patterns of the 32-bar pop song (verses and choruses whose repetition is interrupted by a “release” or “bridge”). Consider, by way of example, the second track, which opens smartly with Bell’s hand drums (Nigerian udu drums, to be precise). The melody of the first two lines of the verse reminds me of Will Hudson & Eddie DeLange’s “Moonglow,” but Duner’s lyrics seem deliberately to steer clear of thoughts and sentiments so rounded from use. That is perhaps to be expected from a song called “The Multiple Useful.” The third and fourth lines then leap from the slow legato of the first into a double-time assertion, and the fifth and sixth lines mark a distinct third cadence that follows from the fourth line. By the sixth and final line of the verse Duner has even added a growl into her delivery. This six-line pattern repeats three further times, except that in the last iteration the pattern of the middle lines, 3-4, repeats again, so that the expected closure doesn’t come. This teasing of expectations is entirely in keeping with the sense of Duner’s lyric, asking if “is there another qualified male / who will be able to serve . . . my different matters.”Different as she is, Duner is not to be confused with one of our many singer-songwriters who is ready to explode from all the purportedly profound and original things they wish to share with the world. Her artistry is as much to be found in her fluid phrasing and her expressive delivery as it is her writing. Moreoverin what I regard as another winning aspect of this albumher originals are balanced with “standards.” I put “standards” in scare quotes because her choices draw not only from the Broadway composers of yore but also significant Jazz writers: two tunes from Ellington, one from Strayhorn, one from Horace Silver, and one from Harry Warren. Her take on “Caravan” is a highpoint, with Penman, and Bell percolating loosely and
Stuart contributing chords and riffs rather more dissonant than anything Duke likely imagined. The ensemble play here is loose and fleet. When Duner comes back in, singing “This is so exciting,” she seems to be referring to music she and her quartet are making as much as she is interpreting the words to Tizol and Ellington’s tune. Duner’s voice is fine, but finally her sensibility and smarts are what make her songsand they contribute crucially to making this record. In her notes Duner observes how, “taking into account the CIMP recording technique, I turned my artistic ideas for the songs around.” She celebrates the “dirty” way her songs turned out in this recording, but I don’t hear anything “dirty” (and maybe that’s why she used scare quotes): the music sounds intimate and real. More than that, Duner, Stuart, Penman, and Bell really feel like they are in the moment together. Too often the instrumental breaks on vocal records are perfunctory and there just for form; I ordinarily wait out such breaks as opposed to enjoying them. But Stuart, Penman, and Bell take Duner’s songs to new places. Their breaks are exciting and their comping is sensitive but never passivewhich says a great deal about the degree to which Duner is herself a proper musician. “At Last” is taken as a duo with bassist Penman, and on “Lush Life” Bells sits out. I could imagine the decision to sit out coming as readily from Stuart or Bell as from Duner (or producer Bob Rusch). On the aforementioned “Jack the Ripper,” Duner breaks off after an emphatic “nevertheless” and Stuart is there instantly, with a Wes Montgomeryish tone, as though fired up by the previous line, “she likes the way he moves.” Actually, it would be hard to praise over much Stuart’s fluid and gentle lines, which contribute gracefully to all of thesesongs save “At Last.” One could say that, in her tendency to thwart expectations, Duner behaves according to the familiar credos of Modern Art. But this is not a record about exploding conventionsthis is a record about making compelling music, and writing songs that are effective in their own way. The album’s first track, “The Rain in Spain,” begins with a two-note guitar figure that suggests the ticking of a clock. Marking time instead of baiting her hook, she opens pensively, “Once upon a time I was bigger than life.” The song develops in an almost elliptically personal manner, but, admittedly out of context, this opening line suggests something of the fate of the modern Jazz singer. And yet, given the thoughtfulness of this thirty-something artist, it’s hard to imagine she would want to be anything other than what she is: a lover who lives her art and an artist who loves her life. The Rain in Spain is a gem of a record that all too likely will be missed by those who could most enjoy it: serious listeners of Jazz, and aficionados of song delivered by an artist who understands what she is singing.
Michael Coyle, Cadence Magazine
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