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Jan Shapiro: Back to Basics

There are unassuming albums that sneak up on you, catch you by surprise and end up getting much heavier rotation on your personal playlist than grander, more ambitious and aggressively hyped discs. Jan Shapiro’s Back to Basics is such an album. Almost. Indeed, this latest collection of standards from the sterling-voiced, Boston-based singer and educator (she’s taught at Berklee for two decades and served as vocal chair for the past 10 years) is one track (actually, just one word) short of faultless. It’s like a charm bracelet with seven superbly crafted pieces and an eighth that is, unfortunately, ineradicably tarnished.

On the plus side: Her black-velvet reading of “Change Partners,” veiled in softly seductive mystery, is offset by a languidly lusty “Just Squeeze Me,” a gently simmered “A Beautiful Friendship” that stops just short of steamy, a delightfully playful “Sister Sadie” and a gorgeously spare “Don’t Be That Way” in which Shapiro coyly coaxes while John Baboian’s guitar gently smiles. The penultimate “Be Anything (But Be Mine)” is warm and sweet, but avoids the stickiness that has spoiled so many previous versions.

Then, with a disc-ending nod to the Gershwins (the album’s second, preceded by a twinkling, tinkling “Love Is Here to Stay”), the flaw in an otherwise luxuriant ointment emerges. Committing a sin I’ve commented on before, Shapiro (who really should know better), ruins George and Ira’s carefully constructed “‘S Wonderful” by singing “It’s wonderful, It’s marvelous… It’s awful nice, It’s paradise…” Perhaps others don’t consider such grammatical revisionism the egregious crime I do. For me, it’s like fingernails on a chalkboard, and reason enough to downgrade my estimation of Back to Basics from great to near great while increasing my gratitude for iPods. I’ll be downloading tracks one through seven and listening to them often; but that eighth track will languish on the CD shelf, never to be heard again.

Originally Published