Jazz was an essential component of Nora York’s artistry, but the polymathic performer inhabited numerous realms where her high-caliber intellectual firepower and boundless emotional insight flourished. Her death from pancreatic cancer in 2016 at the age of 60 came as she was in the midst of creating “Diva’s Song,” an ambitious multimedia collaboration with her husband, painter Jerry Kearns, inspired by Puccini’s anguished “Vissi d’arte” aria from Tosca. There’s nothing quite so grand on Swoon, the first posthumous release from York’s evidently brimming files, but it’s a potent reminder of the singular talent known better for her dynamic performances than her slim (though impressive) discography.
Drawn from various sessions produced by pianist Jamie Lawrence, who provides effective accompaniment with two very different ensembles, her fifth album offers a glimpse at York’s many facets. The opening track, a slow and decidedly self-possessed version of the Elvis Presley hit “All Shook Up,” is both wickedly ironical and unabashedly carnal. Her take on Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” is similarly effective, a stripped-down track featuring acoustic guitar, bass, and melodica with some additional lyrics at the beginning and end that neatly frame the soaring declaration.
A songwriter with capacious skills, York crafted melodies that serve as ideal vehicles for her velvet-lined bronze tone, like the mid-’70s soft-rocker “The Rain Came Down” or the Baroque-turned-chamber techno “Snowstorm in June,” a furious climate change cri de coeur that centers on Mother Nature’s query “Am I getting warm? I’m just getting started.” York is at her best on confessional pieces like “In the Morning,” a lovely song about resilience in the face of insecurity and dislocation, and the second-greatest ode to the lost aviatrix, “Amelia,” a piece that feels like it ascended from a hit Broadway musical. Let’s hope this is just the first dispatch from an artist who left way too soon.
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