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Jesse Palter Returns to Jazz

After a long detour, the singer/songwriter came back to her "home base"

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Jesse Palter (photo: Anna Webber)
Jesse Palter (photo: Anna Webber)

If Jesse Palter’s brisk, buoyant composition “Spinning ’Round” sounds familiar to you on first listen, there’s a reason for that: Other jazz singers like it a lot. Sara Gazarek recorded it on her Grammy-nominated 2019 album Thirsty Ghost. Cécile McLorin Salvant has performed it at the GroundUP Festival and at New York’s Village Vanguard. “There is nothing more exhilarating than when other artists think enough of my songs to record or sing them live,” Palter says. “It’s the grandest of honors. But it feels so profound to me that people can finally hear my version.”

“Finally” is the proper adverb here, as the release of Palter’s own rendition of her song has been a long time coming. She recorded it in 2013 as part of a full-length album, cut with a rhythm section of pianist Michael Jellick, bassist Ben Williams, and drummer Gregory Hutchinson. At the time, Jellick and Williams were members of her principal band; based in Detroit and known as the Jesse Palter Quartet, they played more than 250 gigs a year together for half a decade. Their album went unreleased for eight years (though Palter’s pal Gazarek heard it and loved it so much that she asked for permission to cover “Spinning ’Round”), but it’s now on sale at last, having been released in February under the title Nothing Standard.

Why the nearly decade-long wait? It’s complicated. Although Palter’s been swinging since at least middle school—she majored in jazz at the University of Michigan, took part in Christian McBride’s Jazz Aspen program, and has studied and/or performed with Geoffrey Keezer, Avishai Cohen, Sean Jones, Dianne Reeves, and Marcus Belgrave—she eventually set aside her jazzier repertoire and signed with the Artistry Music label (distributed by Mack Avenue) in the late 2010s as a pop/rock artist. The resulting album, Paper Trail, was released in 2019. Then came COVID.

“So here we are in a global pandemic,” Palter quips. “It’s not as easy to work, funds for making a real record in a studio—the authentic way you want to make a record if you can—aren’t as readily available. And all this time I have this music, which I own the masters to, on a hard drive sitting around doing nothing. It was weighing on me. Like, why am I not releasing this? This is my home base. At my core, I’m just a big old jazz nerd. So what if it was recorded several years ago? And it was nice to be able to make the decision myself to release it without having any expectations of how it would perform. It just very much instinctively felt in my gut like the next step was a backward step—and that was the only way I could move forward.”

“This is my home base. At my core, I’m just a big old jazz nerd.”

As its title implies, Nothing Standard contains no evergreens from the Great American Songbook, consisting mainly of songs penned by Palter. But there are two covers: reimaginings of the Beatles’ “Hey Jude” and “Happiness” from You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown (not surprisingly, a show that this self-professed “musical-theater kid” performed in during her youth).

“I almost feel like I’m reuniting with this album in a way,” Palter says. “It had become this emotionally loaded thing for many reasons, just because of how much life I’ve experienced in and out of the music world since I recorded it. But I can honestly say I’m proud of it. I never like hearing myself, but I can listen to this record and feel like, okay, we did our job because it truly is a documentation of a moment in time, of me and my buddies in a room playing our hearts out. It’s not perfect but it doesn’t need to be. It’s real. And this is my chance to reclaim my own voice. You can take the girl out of jazz, but you can’t take the jazz out of the girl.”

Mac Randall

Mac Randall

Mac Randall has been the editor of JazzTimes since May 2018. Prior to that, he wrote regularly for the magazine. He has written about numerous genres of music for a wide variety of publications over the past 30 years, including Rolling Stone, The New York Times, Vanity Fair, The New York Observer, Mojo, and Guitar Aficionado, and he has worked on the editorial staffs of Musician, LAUNCH (now Yahoo! Music), Guitar One, Teaching Music, Music Alive!, and In Tune Monthly. He is the author of two books, Exit Music: The Radiohead Story and 101 Great Playlists. He lives in New York City.