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Judy Wexler: Crowded Heart (Jewel City Jazz)

A review of the vocalist's fifth album

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Judy Wexler, Crowded Heart
The cover of Crowded Heart by Judy Wexler

Since releasing her 2005 debut album, Easy on the Heart (Jazzopolis), Judy Wexler has carved out a jewel-like niche as a gracefully swinging singer who brings penetrating insight to American Songbook-adjacent material often overlooked by her colleagues. Her fifth release, Crowded Heart, finds her radically expanding her purview with a program of songs by contemporary jazz musicians, and each track offers a tantalizing map for other singers to follow.

She mines the work of her peers for much of her best material, like the briskly grooving samba jazz opener “Circus Life,” a jaded vision of the rat race by fellow Los Angeles singer Luciana Souza (with Larry Klein and David Batteau) introduced on her 2009 album Tide. The powerhouse Danish jazz vocalist Sinne Eeg (with Mads Mathias) supplies the aching title track, a portrait of life with a married lover set to a gorgeously contoured melody that briefly recalls Jimmy Rowles’ “The Peacocks.” British vocalist Georgia Mancio’s bereft lyric for Alan Broadbent’s noir-inspired “The Last Goodbye” is another gem. Filled with regrets, second thoughts, and backward glances, these are songs that evoke adult emotional terrain (likewise with Wexler’s calmly amorous take on René Marie’s “Take My Breath Away”).

Working with the same core cast of superlative L.A. players—including pianist, arranger, and co-producer Alan Pasqua, bassist Darek Oles, drummer Steve Hass, guitarist Larry Koonse, and reed expert Bob Sheppard—Wexler sounds utterly relaxed while delivering some intricately constructed material. She’s a soft and subtle singer who works in small musical spaces. While clearly inspired by less-is-more vocalists like Shirley Horn and Irene Kral, she doesn’t sound anything like either of them. Rather than inhabiting characters, she approaches songs with an observational sensibility, an outsider stance that’s particularly effective in these songs. With space for countless joys and woes, Wexler’s heart (and book) can continue to contain multitudes.

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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.