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Judy Wexler

Los Angeles vocalist Judy Wexler may have taken her time deciding to devote her life to jazz, but since releasing her first CD in 2005 she hasn’t wasted a moment establishing herself as one of the music’s most incisive and engaging vocalists.

Featuring a superlative cast of L.A. improvisers, most importantly pianist/arranger Alan Pasqua, Wexler’s startlingly mature debut Easy on the Heart (Rhombus Records) announced the arrival of a big league talent, complete with a lustrous, fine-grained voice, impeccable technique, and a persuasive sense of swing. What really set Wexler apart from the legions of bright young things was the probing musical intelligence she applied to a magpie repertoire ranging from Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern to Oscar Brown Jr., Bob Dylan, and Abbey Lincoln.

Wexler’s second CD, Dreams & Shadows (Jazzed Media), furthered her musical explorations and showed no signs of a sophomore jinx. Reaching #2 on the national JazzWeek chart, Dreams & Shadows garnered rave reviews and a profile on NPR by Susan Stamberg, who stated, “Based on the evidence of Dreams & Shadows, Judy Wexler can sing almost anything.”

With her third release, 2011’s Under a Painted Sky (Jazzed Media), Wexler confirms her status as a jazz original, a singer who puts an indelible stamp on every song she interprets. Once again, she’s found a treasure trove of tunes mostly overlooked by her peers. Collaborating with a bevy of Southland heavyweights, including Pasqua, bassist Darek Oles, saxophonists Bob Sheppard and Bob Mintzer, guitarist Larry Koonse, and percussionist Alex Acuna, she sustains a mood of playful relaxation from the first track to the last.

“I felt that with his harmonic palette and approach, Alan could really evoke the peaceful feeling I was looking for,” Wexler says about Pasqua, who wrote all the arrangements and provides ravishing accompaniment throughout. “We’re presenting a lot of material that’s not as well known, and he finds just the right vibe for each song.”

The album opens with “Wonderful, Wonderful,” the hit that launched Johnny Mathis’s career in 1957, though here reinvented with a brisk, ebullient treatment. Her lilting version of Abbey Lincoln’s “And How I Hoped for Your Love” pays tribute to an artist whose already imposing stature continues to grow as singers explore her gem-laden songbook.

“I adore her in every way,” Wexler says. “Abbey is a role model to so many of us because of her uncompromising artistry.”

In many ways, the album serves as a road map for Wexler’s fascinating influences, revealing impeccable taste at every turn. She discovered Sunny Skyler’s “Don’t Wait Too Long” via the inimitable Blossom Dearie, to whom she devoted an acclaimed show several years ago.

“The Great City” is a tribute to Shirley Horn, one of her most profound sources of inspiration, while “Café” features lyrics that British jazz singer Norma Winstone wrote for a gorgeous Egberto Gismonti tune. Wexler’s husband Alan provided the English lyric for “Avec Le Temps,” a 1970s pop hit in France.

“I wanted to record a French tune because my family is from Montreal, and although we’re not French Canadian, I grew up hearing a lot of French, as well as Yiddish, spoken around the house,” Wexler says, “plus I’ve had great experiences both at the Montreal Jazz Festival and another date there when we sold out the club.”

The avid response from a sophisticated jazz audience is no surprise. A warm and generous performer, Wexler came to jazz after years of work as an actress and devoted study of the piano. Everything she sings is marked by the kind of emotional insight that can only be gleaned through life experience. She doesn’t use her stage training to create characters like some cabaret singers. Rather, Wexler turns her acute intuition into penetrating musical decisions.

Born and raised in Los Angeles, she graduated from the University of California, Santa Cruz in the late-70s with a double major in theater and psychology. Looking to pursue her love of acting, she moved up to San Francisco to join the city’s vibrant alternative theater scene, where she co-founded a theater collective and acted in plays and musicals. Living up the street from North Beach’s storied 1970s jazz club Keystone Korner, she also soaked up the music with her future husband, an avid jazz fan.

“We spent so many weekends going to hear everybody from Dexter Gordon and Stan Getz to Freddie Hubbard and Eddie Jefferson,” Wexler says. “It was an incredible education and a life-changing experience.

They relocated to Los Angeles in the early ’80s in search of better acting opportunities. She landed a few choice roles, like an early Frasier episode that drew on his Cheers backstory (“I played Darla, the Rhea Perlman sight gag, and I still get residuals from that,” Wexler says). But more and more her attention turned toward music.

Wexler studied jazz piano for several years with Terry Trotter, and her keyboard training informs her decisions as a singer. She honed her improvisational sensibility at the Stanford Jazz Workshop with Madeline Eastman and Kurt Elling, and developed an approach inspired by master jazz stylists Blossom Dearie, Irene Kral, Annie Ross, and Shirley Horn. “I really try to learn from Shirley Horn, her use of space and material,” Wexler says. “I’m so interested in finding new songs to share with people that aren’t the same 50 standards that everybody hears all the time.”

Even when Wexler wasn’t on the stage herself, she worked in creatively charged environments. She spent many years as a personal assistant to Shari Lewis, the beloved ventriloquist and puppeteer, and put in a long stint at the Sundance Institute as the assistant to the Director, helping to organize the film festival and programs supporting emerging filmmakers and theatre artists.

Deciding to devote herself to jazz Wexler found an ideal outlet for her creative energy. Her debut album Easy on the Heart was lavishly praised by critics and immediately established the previously unknown Wexler as one of the most compelling new singers on the scene. It left her with no doubt that she was on the right path.

“I felt validated, and I knew this is what I’m going to do for the rest of my life,” Wexler says. “I love singing, both the physical act of singing and the communication, and I think the acting has helped me with the interpretation of lyrics.”

Another reason Wexler’s debut made such a splash was her superlative cast of accompanists, led by Alan Pasqua. While he spent much of the 1970s and ’80s playing keyboards, backing rock stars like Bob Dylan, Carlos Santana, John Fogerty, and Elton John, Pasqua is an exquisite post-bop stylist who was drawn to Wexler by her interesting repertoire and creative process.

She’s also forged close creative ties with pianist Jeff Colella, a stellar L.A. player who was Lou Rawls’ longtime musical director, and has performed and recorded with vocal greats such as Sheila Jordan and Jack Jones. Her regular accompanist on gigs since 2006, he contributed about half the arrangements on Dreams & Shadows, while Pasqua wrote the other half.

“Jeff is a passionate and creative modern player, and collaborating with him and learning from him has been a very important part of my musical evolution. His arrangements complement my style, plus he’s a force to be reckoned with on the bandstand.”

Learning from the best vocalists and surrounding herself with the most formidable improvisers, Wexler has found that coming to jazz relatively late isn’t a handicap. Rather, she’s an artist who has arrived at just the right time, with a book full of stories no one else is telling in quite the same way.