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Allison Wheeler: Winterspring (Ubuntu)

A review of the debut album from the vocalist

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Allison Wheeler: Winterspring (Ubuntu)
The cover of Winterspring by Allison Wheeler

The spell that Allison Wheeler casts with her debut album Winterspring felt more potent the third time through, and each subsequent spin deepened the reverie. A poetic song cycle about transformation and self-discovery, the project introduces an ambitious vocalist, songwriter, and bandleader who’s found a loyal cadre of collaborators far from her California roots.

The title track opens the album and sets the bucolic scene with a lush melody that soars and swoops. While her voice and the “Winterspring” arrangement immediately bring to mind Becca Stevens, Wheeler establishes a well-defined identity of her own over the 11 tracks, which alternate between arresting originals and standards that enhance the album’s thematic flow. A playful version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Something Good” and the obscure Robin Hood Disney theme “Love” sandwich a mini-suite of five songs.

Wheeler has cited singular artists such as Aoife O’Donovan, Regina Spektor, Norma Winstone, and Fiona Apple as influences, but she seems to have absorbed a lot of Stevens and Laura Nyro (whose imprint is all over her ballad “Lines”). Growing up in Monterey, she was deeply involved with the Monterey Jazz Festival’s honor vocal ensemble when it was run by the husband-and-wife team of Kerry Marsh and Julia Dollison. She went on to study with them at the University of Northern Colorado and eventually made her way to the Czech Republic. Living and working in Prague in recent years, she’s found a remarkable community of players, and her band features 23-year-old pianist and keyboardist Daniel Bulatkin, bassist Max Makagonov, and drummer Petr Nohavica (with guest contributions by guitarist David Dorůžka and reed player Luboš Soukop).

Closing with “Dawn,” Winterspring’s incantation is complete. Summoned and manifested, a new musical world awaits. 

Learn more about Winterspring on Bandcamp.

Andrew Gilbert

Andrew Gilbert is a Berkeley-based freelancer who has written about arts and culture since 1989 for numerous publications, including the San Francisco Chronicle, San Jose Mercury News, Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, East Bay Express, Berkeleyside, and KQED’s California Report. Born and raised in Los Angeles, he experienced a series of mind-blowing epiphanies listening to jazz masters at Kuumbwa Jazz Center in the late 1980s, performances he remembers more vividly than the gigs he saw last month.