The quandary facing 21st-century jazz singers is where to find fresh material. Actress and singer Capathia Jenkins isn’t a jazz vocalist, but she’s provided an invaluable gift to singers looking for songs that are ripe for interpretation and reimagination. Working with longtime creative partner Louis Rosen, a Guggenheim-honored composer and arranger with an extensive list of Broadway credits, Jenkins delivers a song cycle based on Maya Angelou poems that’s like a Christmas present wrapped in velvet.
Arranged for a flexible sextet with four multi-instrumentalists, Rosen’s settings of Angelou’s text feel like songs from a hit 1955 Broadway show, with the kind of wit, irony, humor, and drama that proved irresistible to jazz artists. From her caress of the album’s opening line “The highway’s full of big cars going nowhere fast” on the beseeching “Come Be My Baby,” Jenkins is in full control, her melting-butter tone imbuing Rosen’s welcoming melodies with all the roiling humanity of Angelou’s verse. There’s not a misstep on the album, and the highpoints are manifold, including Jenkins’ funky call-and-response with the horns on “Preacher Don’t.” The sticky refrain and gospel organ accents on “I Hate to Lose Something” make it sound like a lost soul hit from 1966. The power ballad “Poor Girl, Just Like Me” brims with ache and pain, while the blistering blues “Out Here Alone” could fit neatly in Catherine Russell’s repertoire.
There’s no swinging going on, but these songs are smart and stylish outfits that could wear well off the rack despite their bespoke origins. Indeed, this is a partnership with some legs. Phenomenal Woman is the third entry in Jenkins and Rosen’s Black Loom Trilogy song cycle, which also includes 2016’s Dream Suite: Songs in Jazz and Blues on Poems by Langston Hughes and 2008’s One Ounce of Truth: The Nikki Giovanni Songs.