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Roberta Donnay: Blossom-ing! (Village Jazz Cafe)

Review of the Bay Area vocalist's 13th album, which pays tribute to the music and style of Blossom Dearie

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Cover of Roberta Donnay album Blossom-ing!
Cover of Roberta Donnay album Blossom-ing!

A San Francisco Bay Area mainstay, vocalist Roberta Donnay has earned an avid following over the past quarter-century with a repertoire focusing on pre-bop treasures. Her 13th release, Blossom-ing! covers a whole different musical realm, and it’s a particularly felicitous pairing. With her small, pliable, deceptively sweet sound, Donnay possesses an ideal instrument to evoke the wit of Blossom Dearie, the sui generis vocalist and pianist whose cult following gradually expanded upon her return to New York City after a mid-1950s Paris sojourn.

Instead of the horn-laden arrangements found on most of Donnay’s recordings Blossom-ing features a nimble rhythm section with bassist Ruth Davies, drummer Mark Lee, São Paulo-reared guitarist José Neto, and pianist Mike Greensill, who’s the album’s secret sauce. He spent some four decades as accompanist, arranger and husband of the late, beloved jazz/cabaret singer Wesla Whitfield, and he swings with gentle authority that serves Donnay, who co-arranged all the tracks, marvelously well.

Part of what makes the album delightful is the range of material. Some usual suspects are apprehended with style, but she casts a wide net, including only one David Frishberg tune (“Peel Me a Grape” at just the right tempo). Few singers have ever conveyed the gobsmacked impact of a crush as mischievously as Dearie, a sensation that Donnay conjures with the Carolyn Leigh/Cy Coleman gems “You Fascinate Me So” and “It Amazes Me.” She also makes a compelling case for the revival of the rarely covered tunes “Moonlight Savings Time” and “Spring in Manhattan.”

If there’s anything missing, it’s more by Dearie herself. Donnay includes one of her best pieces, the bossa-tinged “Inside a Silent Tear” (with Peter King), but Dearie produced a wealth of songs with some great lyricists, like Jack Segal (“Good-Bye Country Boy”) and Johnny Mercer (“I’m Shadowing You”).

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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.