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Show Me the Way-- Stephanie Nakasian

Stephanie Nakasian is perhaps best known for her CD tributes to various other female jazz singers, such as June Christy (Lullaby in Rhythm), Billie Holiday (Billie Remembered), Lee Wiley (Dedicated to Lee Wiley), and no less than 20 other vocalists on Thrush Hour: A Study of the Great Ladies of Jazz. For her 12th album, Show Me the Way, Nakasian returns to her own inimitable singing style, which compares favorably to the many singers she has tried to emulate during her career. This CD grew out of a series of successful quartet performances at a venue in Williamsburg, VA, led by Nakasian and pianist Harris Simon, her teaching colleague at The College of William and Mary. The special musical rapport exhibited by Nakasian and Simon rivals that which the singer has shared with her husband, pianist Hod O'Brien, over the years. The quartet includes bassist Chris Brydge and drummer Billy Williams, who are more than just along for the ride, as they add invaluable support.

Both the purity of Nakasian's voice and her accord with Simon are immediately apparent on the opening "Lonesome Road," as they begin as a duo before the tempo picks up and Brydge and Williams join them. Simon shines in his solo, and Nakasian scats a bit, sounding much like Ella Fitzgerald. The reflective ending resolves an absorbing arrangement by the singer and pianist. Nakasian sings "So In Love" with an insinuating timbre of throaty depth. Simon's lyrically buoyant solo fits perfectly between the leader's bookended vocal choruses. Nakasian takes on the confessional manner of a cabaret singer for the verse of "Lucky So and So," but thereafter reverts to a more down-to-earth bluesy style. A polished Simon harmonica solo and Nakasian's uncanny vocalized trombone imitiation near the conclusion are surprise highlights of this outstanding track.

Nakasian's Fitzgerald influence is clearly evident in her nuanced, smooth delivery of "Easy Street," with Simon excelling in both his solo and accompaniment. The lyrics to Horace Silver's "Nica's Dream" gets a lucidly articulated , soft-voiced exposition before Nakasian scats jubilantly and with infectious swing for a chorus. Simon plays a scintillating solo and then trades artfully with Williams prior to the singer's appealing reprise. Nakasian and Simon are again in complete alliance as they navigate "I Concentrate on You" with subtle care and touching expressiveness, backed by Williams' exquisite brush work. The deceptively challenging "The End of a Love Affair" is expertly handled by Nakasian, her soaring, uninhibited scat solo quite impressive. She brings freshness to the standard's harmonic and rhythmic intricacies, and Simon remains with her every step of the way, with an improv that matches the singer's in creativity.

Complete with verse, Nakasian's treatment of "Don't Blame Me" caresses the melody and words, and seduces the listener with its refined charms. Nakasian's evocative phrasing and flexible intonation come to the forefront here. Bassist Brydge stands out on Nakasian's flawlessly realized interpretation of "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most," actively contributing to its success with a variety of fills and motifs, his presence much felt even without the aid of a solo. Nakasian growls her way through Van Morrison's blues "Times Are Gettin' Tougher Than Tough" with assured authority, and executes a mock plunger-trombone improv after another surging Simon harmonica outing. "Ill Wind" is graced by another alluring Simon piano intro, as well as his seamless comping and melodic solo, all enhancing Nakasian's harmonically complex, note-bending vocalizing. Another wonderful Simon harmonica solo completes this memorable selection.

Nakasian and Simon turn "Control Yourself," a less-than-substantial André and Dory Previn tune, into a delightful romp. "You and the Night and the Music" receives a contemplative, unhurried first chorus, preceding a mid-tempo excursion the rest of the way. Simon's solo dances all over the keys, and Nakasian effortlessly moves from the understated winsomeness of the opening to the full throttle verve of the out chorus. Dave Frishberg's "Zanzibar" pulses to Williams' Latin beat as Nakasian and Simon deftly capture the tune's inherent devil-may-care attitude. Simon's prancing solo and a scat/drums exchange help to make this one a satisfying treat. The Matt Denis/Les Clark tune "Show Me the Way (to Get Out of This World)" closes the program in a forthright, upbeat way, with two Simon piano spots sandwiched around an emphatic Brydge bass solo.

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Scott Albin