The singing of Audrey Silver is a complete pleasure to the ear: warm, supple, effortless, serene, and full of heart. Her onetime teacher, Mark Murphy, singled her out in his fanciful way: Audrey, he said, “has that rare quality of light, infectious swing that lights up her tall, willowy persona.” Audrey is an admired presence on the New York jazz scene; and this album, her third, will show you why. Arranged by jazz singer and Berklee School of Music professor Steven Santoro, Very Early is a package of
articulate stories about life. It reaches beyond standards to include songs by Sting, Israeli singersongwriter Keren Ann, and Audrey herself, in collaboration with her songwriting partner, composer Dominique Gagne.
If this disc is your introduction to Audrey, that’s probably because of her slow, sometimes fitful ascent as an artist. New York-born and based, she devoted her early years to the study of classical piano and cello; in college she discovered the joys of singing. From there Audrey made a lateral shift by taking business positions at CBS Masterworks, then Chesky Records. Subsequently she earned an MBA and moved into advertising. “If you’d asked me at any point what I wanted to do, I would have said performing. I just didn’t think I could.”
She and her husband had a son in 1995, and Audrey opted to stay home. After about six months, the desire to make music welled up in her again. She ventured to the 92nd St. Y in New York, where she auditioned successfully for a jazz ensemble class. Its leader was pianist Jon Raney, son of the great modern jazz guitarist Jimmy Raney. Audrey stayed on for several semesters. “After about four years, Jon turned to me and said, ‘So are you gonna do this, or not?'” Those words set her on the road that led to this album.
Audrey doesn’t hide her key obstacle along the way: a fierce and prolonged struggle with clinical depression. “Almost everybody that I meet has had some experience with it or knows someone who has,” says Audrey. Hard as it was to persevere, she did, until she found solutions. “I think making music is what kept me going,” she adds.
The freedom and ease of these new recordings suggest brighter days for Audrey. Jazz singing has certainly enabled her to spread her wings. “It’s a lot of freedom within a structure,” she explains.
“You can phrase a song however you want to, play with it.” But her technique never draws attention to itself: “When I improvise I try and do things that are melodic. I’m not trying to sound like I know a lot of theory.”
On the contrary, she lays her technique at the feet of the story. Jazz fans aren’t likely to know Galileo (Someone Like You), a trademark of Declan O’Rourke, a star singer-songwriter in his native
Ireland. It imagines the struggle the great astronomer had in letting his heart overrule his brain. Audrey’s singing is dry-eyed but deeply felt. Her pianist is Bruce Barth, whose discography includes fourteen albums of his own. Barth is also a sensitive accompanist to jazz singers. He challenges Audrey gently while leaving her a lot of room. Paul Beaudry, her highly respected bassist, and master drummer Lewis Nash fill out the most supportive rhythm section a singer could wish for.
The Cold Wind’s Embrace was borne of a time when Audrey was facing serious back surgery. She ruminated on her mother, who had braved numerous back operations as well as depression before dying in her forties. Pondering what her mother had suffered, she felt closer to her than ever before. In bed prior to the surgery, Audrey wrote these lyrics.
Two Rodgers & Hammerstein standards get an overhaul. Audrey and the late pianist Joshua Wolff dreamed up the idea of doing Surrey with the Fringe on Top in 5/4. “I like that it’s an odd meter,” she says, “because surreys are not perfectly aligned vehicles; they’re a little creaky.” This arrangement of Getting to Know You employs dark substitute chords and a prowling pace. Audrey had appeared on a New England radio show with a hostess who asked that they pair up on this confectionary children’s song from The King & I. Later on Audrey thought: “Wouldn’t it be great to do the stalker version? I said to Steve, ‘Here’s the instructions: Make it creepy.'”
Goodbye New York is a fast-moving series of snapshots of urban life and angst. It came from her old college friend Deborah Garrison, a New Yorker-published poet, author, and book editor. Audrey and Dominique set it to music. As a child, Audrey had lived in the same Manhattan apartment building as Carol Hall, who wrote the score for The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. Hall took on the challenge of setting words to Very Early, one of Bill Evans’s first compositions, written in his beloved ¾ time. The piece has daunting intervals and voicings, but Audrey glides through it.
Other tracks show off her outstanding soloists. George Benson said that guitarist Ron Affif “plays with fire”; the proof is here, in his solo on Mose Allison’s What’s with You. Trumpeter Alex Norris adds a moody midnight atmosphere to Sting’s Until. Gary Versace’s accordion and Tom Beckham’s vibes heighten the wistfulness of When the World Was New, written by her and Dominique.
Audrey brings a hop-skipping lightness to Lucky to Be Me, sung in the musical On the Town by a sailor on shore leave in Manhattan during World War II. “To me it’s a single-message song; it’s very joyful,” says Audrey. For all the conflicted emotions she reveals in the course of this album, Very Early is ultimately an expression of hard-earned endurance and positivity. “I want people to come away from it feeling better than they had before,” she says.
— James Gavin, New York, 2016
[James Gavin’s books include biographies of Peggy Lee, Lena Horne, and Chet Baker.]