What distinguishes a singer who "has something to say" from one who is simply pleasant to listen to? Lisa Engelken's new CD Caravan has helped me answer this question. It abundantly delivers on the promise of her riveting live shows (the CD release concert happens May 7 at the Jazzschool in Berkeley), and it raises the bar of what to expect from a vocal jazz outing.
Always the first impression is made by the sound of the voice itself, and the half-chorus of rubato at the top of the set draws our attention to Engelken's unique vocal quality. She displays the same utter confidence in the up-tempo half and scat chorus, and then we are certain that we're listening to a superbly-trained voice. Note her double-time phrasing near the end of the tune. And when it's over, listen for the punch line that signals that serious art doesn't have to take itself too seriously. (Gets me every time.)
A hallmark of any great vocal jazz set is creative arranging. How about a jazz funeral take on "Just One of Those Things"? Several solos and playful accompaniment from the other musicians (e.g., David Alt on clarinet) enhance the New Orleans "second line" effect and keep the mood upbeat and the feeling "live." There are touches here that reward careful listening, such as her introduction of the word "daddy" that foreshadows the tag, the band quoting the singer, and the piano dissonance that not only lends a touch of gravity but presages the mood of the rest of the set. But first we party some more, this time in Brazil, with Engelken singing "Canto de Ossanha" in Portuguese and arranging for a vocal choir.
The title track is deservedly the centerpiece of the set, a truly inspired take on a classic that I had thought I had heard too many times. Her dreamy, mysterious reworking is not merely another arranging credential: it has emotional depth that brings forth a tear, always at the same point, going into the solos. I don't know how to describe it, though the abstract, vivid cover art aptly reflects the mood. Another jazz classic in unusual time ("Afro Blue") solidifies the feeling that we have been led into a strange, exotic world.
Joni Mitchell's "Trouble Child", on the other hand, certainly has not been done too many times–in fact it appears to be virgin territory for jazz singers. Engelken draws upon her amazing technique to sing the intricate line and convey the heady lyric, without imitating Joni. A tasty, funky trumpet solo by Joel Behrman wraps up the radio-friendly track. I'd like to see the jazz repertoire move in this direction. Another wise and unusual selection, "Winter Moon," also highlights her superior vocal control (the long tones and bent notes) to deepen the stark mood. We have arrived at the dark night of the soul, nearly alone: this track is also an opportunity to savor the core trio of Adam Shulman (p), Sam Bevan (b), and Matt Swindells (d).
The way out of that dark night is to reconnect with the world, to put two feet on the ground. Another arranging masterpiece, "From the Earth" is also a marvel of restraint, as it lets the funky horn lines of the main melody of Freddie Hubbard's "Red Clay" stand on their own. Instead Engelken follows Hubbard's model and delivers a modern commentary that complements the hook and develops great dramatic intensity. Due to the mix or perhaps the rapidity of her trumpet-like delivery, I could not make out all the lyrics, but I did detect a Beatles reference and a theme of social consciousness. This is another track that invites repeated listening, as there is so much going on. I can't wait to hear this one live!
After having proven herself on old and new tunes, the overdone and the overlooked, jazz standards and the Great American song book, and all manner of rhythms, Engelken intrepidly opens new territories for jazz, tackling the 80's classic "White Wedding" without a trace of irony. Somehow, she captures the menace of Billy Idol's trademark sinister growl–certainly her vocal agility and the tightness of the band are key, but this far into the voyage, we have placed a great deal of trust in our guide...we're not in Kansas anymore. So we come to the loftiest goal of the vocalist: to make the listener believe something they didn't before, to create a new reality. Mastery of technique creates authority, and in art, that power comes with an expectation that it be used to invent something, to say something new.
Narrative structure is big part of saying something. A vocal jazz set has an opportunity to tell a story that an instrumental set mostly lacks. This one is a journey into the unknown, a dream world framed by ballads of sleeping and waking. It begins with the promise we'll wake up and all will be restored ("We'll Be Together Again"), and ends with the realization that everything is going so well that, well, perhaps it's not real after all ("Detour Ahead"). The dream itself takes us to faraway lands and into the dangerous recesses of our own psyches. I'm certain that we have not heard everything Engelken can do, because clearly she has selected material and styles that support the message of the album as a whole.
Caravan, in short, is a stunning, moving, and beautiful work that announces the arrival of an intelligent, fearless vocal perfectionist on the jazz landscape. Turn "shuffle" off and listen to the CD front to back to appreciate all the nuance great vocal jazz has to offer. See her live to understand why she can draw the best from excellent musicians (tour dates available on www.lisaengelken.com). Buy her CD or digital download at cdbaby.com and most online outlets to tell the marketplace that you want to hear more jazz like this.
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