There isn’t another jazz singer on the planet who sounds like Laura Theodore. Just another way of saying she’s a bona fide original. The same can be said of guitarist Joe Beck: many guitarists play and swing like he does, but his sound remains distinctive. Then consider this album. It had been in the works since late 2006, as a tribute to another much-loved original, Peggy Lee, as well as a homage to the songwriting team of Lee and her husband, Dave Barbour
(also a singer-guitarist duo). Beck became ill in 2007, soon after he and Laura completed the recording sessions, and died from lung cancer in ’08. The realization that this is his final recording makes it even more precious.
Ms Theodore, blessed with a four-octave range, uses every bit of that spread to convey a full spectrum of emotions: from the minor mode distress of “Johnny Guitar” and the scolding sarcasm of “Why Don’t You Do Right?” (What a delicious ending as Laura concludes on a strongly projected fifth, while Beck fingers his way up a minor triad, ending on a very hip major 7th; to the Latin lament, “My Small Señor;” the seductive “When You Speak With Your Eyes,” containing some sultry sotto voce scat; and of course, for comic relief, “Mañana.”
How does Laura handle the blues? Quite effectively; check “You Was Right Baby.” There are many non-Lee/Barbour standards, the most memorable being “I Get Along Without You Very Well,” an expressive reading of the Hoagy Carmichael classic in which she lets her voice “grate” certain clusters of notes for dramatic effect.
Speaking of effects, I have mixed feelings regarding Beck’s invention, the alto guitar. He deserves no end of credit for devising an instrument that divides its six strings into two for bass notes, four for chords and/or melody. But the resulting tone has a ringing quality that tends to obscure his amazing finger runs and chordal richness. Half of the 16 tracks on the album is devoted to alto guitar; the other eight are for acoustic guitar with standard tuning.