The second Meredith D’Ambrosio album from 1981, Another Time, is a perfect object, absolutely one of a kind. Her voice is low in range but light in affect. She’s clearly a saloon singer, someone used to delivering torch songs to the accompaniment of booze and cigarettes, but somehow her presentation is totally innocent nonetheless. Evelyn Waugh said that P.G. Wodehouse’s stories existed in Eden before the Fall. In D’Ambrosio’s hands, even adult songs like “Lazy Afternoon” lack any suggestion of sin.
At the piano, she works over the material, pruning and shaping, finding a personal interpretation for the accompaniment. The diatonic chime of her reharmonizations occasionally recalls a child’s music box, but there’s also just enough of Bill Evans’ added-tone colors to satisfy the experienced listener.
Each song is under three minutes. The lyric drives her aesthetic. She searches out songs that tell a certain kind of story from composers and lyricists of a certain kind of sophisticated bent—notably seven pieces from Alec Wilder, including his lyric to Thad Jones and Roland Hanna’s “A Child Is Born.” Three effervescent Dave Frishberg songs help define the narrative aspect of the disc; her own amusing piece “The Piano Player (A Thousand and One Saloons)” is right in Frishberg storytelling tradition.
Some of what I’ve written so far might suggest that D’Ambrosio is a musical-theatre or cabaret singer. That’s not true: She’s a jazz singer. The way her voice flexibly phrases over the beat on the intentionally naive teen prayer “Someday My Prince Will Come” displays serious rhythmic know-how.
Still, D’Ambrosio is certainly not just for regular jazz listeners; she’s for anyone attuned to the right wavelength. Her producer at Sunnyside Records, François Zalacain, tells the story of a truck driver from middle America who called the company. This gentleman rarely gave jazz much of a chance, but he had heard something from Another Time on the radio, and wanted the album on cassette so he could listen while driving the big rig, especially when it was raining. (Zalacain had to explain that Sunnyside didn’t make cassettes any more, but was happy to sell him a CD.)
Another Time is one of 16 stellar D’Ambrosio discs on Sunnyside. She plays piano on many of these albums, but legendary accompanists like Fred Hersch, Harold Danko, Lee Musiker, and even Hank Jones also appear supporting the singer. Her late husband Eddie Higgins was a great pianist too, and their collaborations have remarkable simpatico. Not content with being a master musician, D’Ambrosio is also a master painter, specializing in critically acclaimed watercolors, and even innovated a genre of visual art, eggshell mosaics. Her helpful website declares her to be a “Renaissance woman.” A new D’Ambrosio album on Sunnyside will be released in February 2021.
Blossom Dearie: Blossom Time at Ronnie Scott’s (Fontana, 1966) – The nearest person to pair with D’Ambrosio might be the legendary Blossom Dearie, another niche vocalist/pianist with an innocent voice, although Dearie was not above interjecting something bawdy into the mix. This fine London performance introduced Dave Frishberg’s “I’m Hip.”
Dave Frishberg: Classics (Concord, 1991) – Frishberg was an idiosyncratic jazz pianist in the Jimmy Rowles tradition before devoting himself to songwriting. His voice does the job, but the piano breaks are something else. This trio with the “Phil Woods rhythm section” of Steve Gilmore and Bill Goodwin satisfies. Frishberg is still around and should receive a special award for writing some of the best comic songs of all time.
Eddie Higgins: If Dreams Come True (Venus, 2004) – D’Ambrosio’s late husband was not a household name but he began his career recording with Lee Morgan and Wayne Shorter and always displayed taste and chops. A steady trio with Jay Anderson and Joe Ascione recorded many lush and swinging albums for the Japanese market.