Room for Two-- April Hall

Those who heard April Hall's impressive 2008 Fun Out of Life CD may have wondered why such a fine singer was not better known outside of her Boston-area base. With the release of her new Room for Two CD, it's time to wonder once again. The Berklee College of Music graduate is presented this time in a duet format, a stark and challenging setting for any vocalist, and her signature versatility and genuine expressiveness are clearly evident. Hall's duet partners include pianist Tim Ray on three tracks, guitarist Gray Sargent on two, drummer Les Harris, Jr. on two, and tenor saxophonist Tom Hall, accordionist Joe Barbato, and bassists Marty Ballou, Mark Poniatowski, and Marshall Wood on one each.

"Amazing Love" finds Hall's soulful, rich voice and relaxed but sure phrasing combining to great effect with Sargent's sympathetic accompaniment and blues-inflected solo. Ballou's responsive, resonant bass meshes perfectly with Hall's enjoyable Fats Waller influenced vocalizing on "Honeysuckle Rose." "To Whom It May Concern" is given a properly reflective treatment by Hall that further confirms her great ability to sing ballads in both moving and memorable fashion. Ray's floating, understated piano is an added plus. For "I Want to Be Happy," Harris, Jr. gives Hall an inventive soundscape using just mallets at first, but the tempo accelerates when the drummer switches to brushes. He delivers a riveting solo and pushes Hall relentlessly until she bursts into helpless laughter at the end of this delightful exercise in rhythmic flexibility between drums and the human voice.

Poniatowski's booming, elastic bass is yet another perfect match for Hall's generally legato, sensual phrasing during "Black Coffee." Hall simply devours material of this nature, alternately breathy or declarative, but always eloquent. It's a pleasure to hear Hall sing the seldom included verse of "You've Changed," as well as to experience such an absorbing, nuanced, above-the-norm interpretation overall. Ray again proves his skills in both comping and soloing. Hall successfully utilizes a huskier intonation for Irving Berlin's "The Best Thing for You." Wood here proves to be one of the three simpatico, stalwart bassists who elevate Hall's performances on this session. Hall seems to have an affinity for songs dealing with the season of Spring. After her magnificent reading of "You Must Believe In Spring" on her previous CD, she now aces "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most," and thankfully again includes the verse. Harris, Jr. shows once more his command of drum sonorities, especially with mallets, which brings to mind Chico Hamilton. If anything, Hall's pacing of this tune is even more deliberate than usual, but the result is entrancing, especially so with Harris, Jr.'s resourceful input.

Hall's husband Tom begins "Gee Baby, Ain't I Good to You" with an undulating, bluesy, post bop intro on tenor, prior to the singer's insinuating exposition. The saxophonist's complementary obbligatos and melodic solo lead on to a rousing duo reprise. The importance of singing the verse is again illustrated with "I Guess I'll Hang My Tears Out to Dry." Hall sings the tune with heartfelt emotion and pinpoint control. Sargent's pliant low-key guitar accentuates her voice on what is one of the recording's strongest tracks. Hall intones "My Baby Just Cares For Me" appealingly in a sexy saloon style, slightly old-fashioned, and Ray's playing resembles a sort of refined Earl Hines, minus Fatha's trademark embellishments. Barbato's accordion intro to "That's All" is graceful and ingratiating, and Hall's trip through the lyrics is buoyant and full-bodied. Barbato's nimble, thematic improv brings still more luster to this beguiling closing selection.

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Scott Albin