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Kari Kirkland: if (when you go) (Slea Head)

Vocalist Kirkland delivers sunshine and covers from Coldplay to Stevie Wonder on her new album.

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Cover of if (when you go)

Vocalist Kari Kirkland’s previous work with multi-hyphenate Shelly Berg yielded a listener-friendly gem in the form of her debut album—2021’s Wild is the Wind. This compelling follow-up, with Berg returning as arranger, pianist, and producer, is similar in substance. Filled with material largely sourced from popular domains and featuring a first-rate band (guitarist Dean Parks, bassist Kevin Axt, drummer Peter Erskine, etc.) that makes everything sound simpler than it is, if (when you go) is a soft-jazz success that leans on its accessibility and belies its sophistication. 

Opening on Stevie Wonder and Susaye Greene’s upbeat, Michael Jackson-associated “I Can’t Help It,” Kirkland delivers pure sunshine and joy in a setting spiced with Latin inflections; in pining with purpose during Buddy Johnson’s “Since I Fell for You,” she inhabits the other side of the same coin. With a voice that’s easy on the ears and heavy on the heart, this singer follows her emotional compass through both numbers, and those that follow, using an artful blend of confidence and confidential expression. 

On Coldplay’s “Fix You,” enhanced by the presence of guest trumpeter Terell Stafford and strings, Kirkland invests herself in the set course—from intimate articulation to anthemic resolve and quiet closure—without aping the original. Mashing up Sting’s “Fragile” with Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “What the World Needs Now Is Love,” she demonstrates serious smarts in the dovetailing department. And by visiting and reinterpreting songs like Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis’ steamy “I Didn’t Mean to Turn You On,” EDM producer Illenium and singer-songwriter Jon Bellion’s lovelorn “Good Things Fall Apart,” Judie Tzuke’s poetic “If (When You Go),” and Jeff Buckley’s cult classic “Lover, You Should’ve Come Over,” Kirkland makes clear that repertorial roads less traveled are often worth exploring. 

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.