When vocalist Arianna Neikrug won the Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition in 2015, her prize included a contract with Concord Records. Three years on, her debut album has at long last been released, heralding the arrival of a major new talent. The 25-year-old, a native Angeleno who recently relocated to New York, sounds remarkably similar to the Vaughan competition’s debut victor, Cyrille Aimée. Yet where the irrepressibly effervescent Aimée sparkles intensely, Neikrug favors a subtler mien. For Changes, she wisely chose to partner with producer/arranger/pianist Laurence Hobgood, so influential to Kurt Elling throughout their near quarter-century of teaming. Joining Hobgood are his regular trio mates, drummer Jared Schonig and bassist Matt Clohesy.
Hardly unusual for an introductory disc, the playlist leans heavily toward jazz and pop standards. Neikrug and company shape a moving “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most,” sassy “After You’ve Gone,” noirish “Devil May Care,” and a superbly percolated “The Song Is You.” They add a stunning take on Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together,” slow and sensuous, and winningly conjoin Joni Mitchell’s “Help Me” with her “Be Cool.” A heartfelt blending of “Never Let Me Go” with the Jackson 5 hit “I’ll Be There” is equally satisfying. Neikrug leaves room for two originals. The samba-propelled title track harks back to her teens, struggling with adolescent angst before learning to roll with such whirlwind changes. Also autobiographical, “New York Song” speaks to her desire, now realized, to grow beyond L.A. and savor NYC’s cultural richness.