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Judy Wexler: Back to the Garden (Jewel City Jazz)

Review of the veteran singer's reinterpretations of 1960s and '70s pop favorites

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Cover of Judy Wexler album Back to the Garden
Cover of Judy Wexler album Back to the Garden

In times of unrest, music is often a beacon of hope, trusted companion, and source of strength for a common cause. That was the case in the ’60s and early ’70s, when the pop and rock anthems of the moment pushed back against oppressive tides, and those same songs still carry significant weight today. Which at least partly explains why vocalist Judy Wexler saw fit to cover some of them here. Recasting flower-power favorites that, sadly, continue to resonate in the present, she draws a perfect line from one era of strife and iniquity to another.

Working closely with pianist and principal arranger Jeff Colella, Wexler winds her way through a set of counterculture classics and singer/songwriter standards with characteristic vocal savvy. Opening with a stirring take on the Youngbloods-associated “Get Together,” she immediately gives voice to truth. By adding an appropriately world-weary performance of Paul Simon’s “American Tune” (arranged by Josh Nelson), a wise and instrumentally flexuous look at Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi,” and a refined yet righteous glide through Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin,’” she furthers her principled position with class and composure.

And she’s in good company at every turn. The core band, with Colella, guitarist Larry Koonse, bassist Gabe Davis, and drummer Steve Hass, remains artfully aligned with her every intention; Erin Bentlage adds volumes with her exquisite background vocal work on a number of tracks; Bob Thiele, Jr. puts his electric and baritone guitars to good use in several spaces; and one-off guest appearances from artists like alto saxophonist Danny Janklow, trumpeter Jay Jennings, harmonica ace Hendrik Meurkens, and violinist Sara Caswell offer additional colors to the mix. When it comes to both theme and team, Judy Wexler sure knows how to pick ’em.

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Dan Bilawsky

Dan Bilawsky has been involved in jazz journalism for 15 years. His work has appeared in JazzTimes, JAZZed, and All About Jazz, among other outlets. In addition, he’s penned liner notes for artists on Red, Capri, HighNote/Savant, Ropeadope, and other respected imprints. A band director with 20 years of teaching experience, he holds degrees in music from Indiana University, the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College, and Five Towns College.