Some tracks on The Upstate Project are better than others. Yes, there is a conceptual unity to the album: singer-songwriter Rebecca Martin and pianist/composer/vocalist Guillermo Klein wrote or adapted 12 jazz compositions, outfitting them in the process with (sometimes bilingual) lyrics. They fit together stylistically, too, an unlikely—and dark, and somber—marriage of Martin and Klein’s idiosyncratic visions. Nevertheless, where quality is an attribute, consistency is not.
Admittedly, Martin’s world-weary throatiness is an acquired taste. But there’s no denying that at points on The Upstate Project, it works well with the darker vibe that Klein brings in. Foremost is “Freedom Run,” a reworking of Kurt Rosenwinkel’s “Cycle 5”; ostensibly about Israeli/Palestinian violence, Martin’s words mostly comprise repetition of an enigmatic couplet (“In the serious of midday/There’s an element of child play”) and the title phrase. With it comes a major-key warmth that Martin—and Klein, in Spanish—accentuates. The English-Spanish dichotomy also succeeds on the brief, sad “Like Every Other Day,” on which Klein sings lyrics called “Llorando Fuerte.” Klein and Martin’s co-written “Outside It Rains for Them” is laced with melancholy and hope, and on the album-closing “To Up and Go,” Martin’s lone writing and vocal achieve beautiful upward swoops that mesh with her guitar, Klein’s piano, and bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard.
Success is not a lock in this project, however. The opening “Just as in Spring” crosses over from darkness to dreariness, with both the wear in Martin’s voice and the low drone in Klein’s approaching caricature. The structure of Martin’s lyrics for Klein’s “Thrones and Believers” is awkward. And “In the Nick of Time” has a superb melody and a serviceable lyric, but it’s hobbled by the grating cliché of marking the passage of time by repeatedly chanting “time.” Even co-authors need good editors.