New Dutch Swing

One of the more inventive bookings in New York clubs is the Jazz Standard's "Voices and Songs," a Monday night, bargain-price ($15) series designed to bring attention to new, neglected, and otherwise below-radar singers. The December lineup was characteristic, if a bit more prominent than usual. It included Alma Micic, who moved to New York from Belgrade five years ago and has developed a quartet that mixes Ellington with traditional Serbian song; Teri Roiger, whose quintet, involving tap dancer Brenda Buffalino and pianist Frank Kimbrough, presented a "Billy Strayhorn Project"; Kendra Shank, one of New York's most original and underrecorded performers, whose repertory ranges from old folk ballads to Abbey Lincoln; and--on a cold night made colder still by the transit strike--Denise Jannah, making an all-too-rare stateside appearance after a busy European tour.

I had not heard Jannah in several years, but we do go back. In the early 1990s, I devoted a column to her CD Take It From the Top (Timeless), one of those unexpected pleasures that reviewers occasionally find when desperately searching for something new. Jannah was certainly that: an English-language singer born in Surinam but living, acting, singing and teaching in Holland. I was much taken with her distinctive contralto, at once husky and sweet; her smart choice of material and melodic embellishments; and her ease with tricky time signatures. My review, however, was hardly a rave: encouraging, yes, but also picky, cautious and disapproving of her accompanists.

So I was bowled over when Blue Note's Bruce Lundvall told me that the label's Dutch affiliate had signed her, in part because of my review, and asked me to produce her next album. He even indulged my plea for a big band (Bob Belden created cosmic interplay between Nelson Riddle and Gil Evans). I am grateful for the experience and proud of my participation in I Was Born in Love With You, a disc that did quite well wherever windmills turn--I actually received royalties--but disappeared from the United States in the blink of an eye. Denise was unable to secure much of a hearing here, while in Europe she achieved Dutch diva status.

That was just over a decade ago. In the intervening years, I had heard a few of her subsequent albums and caught a stirring set she sang at the North Sea Jazz Festival; still, her regal confidence at the Jazz Standard indicated much development along the way--despite jetlag and a rhythm section mostly new to her: drummer E.J. Strickland, bassist Ameen Saleem and her accompanist since 2001, pianist and composer Amina Figarova. The set opened, counterintuitively, with twin invocations of darkness. Figarova, following an unnecessarily lengthy explanation of the 9/11 background of her September Suite, played one of it most haunting elegies, "When the Lights Go Down," irradiated by her crystalline touch and improvisational clarity. Jannah entered with a lyric adaptation of Bill Evans' even more daunting and dauntless "Turn Out the Stars."

Then the light broke through: a rapid-fire "Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise," oddly accented (in 5?), but fluidly swinging, followed by a deft, personalized account of Annie Ross' take on Wardell Gray's blues "Twisted," heightened by a romping, harmonically engaging piano solo and a scat variation, complete with rapidly tongued cascading syllables that fell from one register into another and into the lap of the waiting lyric--this was the highlight, a done-to-death jazz standard made new with rigorous attention to melodic and verbal details. The set darkened again for Jannah's Surinamese version of Figarova's "Triste" and her own didactic "Daybreak," before romping through Bert van den Brink's arrangement of "My Favorite Things," introduced on her excellent 1999 Blue Note disc, The Madness of Our Love.

I doubt you can find Jannah's latest album anywhere except online (denisejannah.com), because only one of its 22 selections is in English. Yet Gedicht Gezongen (Plattel), which translates as "vocalized poetry," succeeds as a satisfyingly pure distillation of her art. She has written music to poems from the Netherlands, Surinam, Aruba, Curacao, Indonesia and St. Maarten, and sings them in the appropriate languages--which to prisoners of English, like me, heightens the vocal, melodic and rhythmic qualities: the dentalized and trilled consonants, various meters (the retardation of time toward the end of "Ik Zie Jullie Gaan"), the very sound of language. Accompanied mostly by guitar, bass and percussion, she achieves a worldly ease not unlike that of Cesaria Evora, especially when anchored by the exceptional, Wes Montgomery-influenced guitarist Leonardo Amuedo de Souza.

The past year was a remarkable one for Figarova, who came to Rotterdam from Baku, Azerbaijan, where she trained as a classical concert pianist and recorded Rachmaninoff and Scriabin. She soon switched her focus to jazz and her own compositions. (Aminafigarova.com shows that she's averaged an album a year since 1994.) Early last year, she released Come Escape With Me (Munich), an engaging septet session using trumpet, flute and two reeds, including the impressive tenor saxophonist Kurt van Herck, and an ensemble style that recalls Art Blakey in the Wayne Shorter years, though she often favors flute (Bart Platteau has the rich timbre of James Moody) in her voicings.

The end-of-year release of September Suite (Munich) represents a major breakthrough for Figarova, who was living in Brooklyn when the towers fell. The moods she details--"Numb," "Denial," Rage," "Dawn"--are familiar enough; her skill in recalling and relating them is remarkable. Programmatic music is usually a matter of smoke and mirrors, and I'm certain that, without the titles, the winding bass clef vamp of "Numb" would not remind me of that dreadful day. Music is inexplicable, however, and the vamp does the job the title promises, as do the snappish but controlled flurries of "Rage" and "Denial," and the affecting awe of "When the Lights Go Down." Written for sextet (only one saxophone), September Suite is a worthy, compelling achievement.

Originally published in March 2006

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