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Various Artists: Arts for Life: My Life is Bold

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“Poetry makes nothing happen,” W.H. Auden quipped, but it has long been the bailiwick of artists to make something happen long after the dust has settled and no one else will. Poetry is in fact the basis of the Arts for Life release My Life Is Bold, a compilation of heartbreaking songs featuring some of New York’s eminent jazz artists and composers, each track setting the poems of children with critical ailments to music. Pathos hangs heavy, but the composers tread lightly and temper what might have been a real tearjerker with a breezy sensibility-optimism reigns here.

The album title comes from a poem written by a 15-year-old named Latisha. “Art is the most important thing to me/Because it lets me know that I am free,” she writes in “I Want to Be a Teacher of Art,” imbued with bluegrass-tinged sweetness by songwriter Alan Hampton. “I want to be a piece of art/When people look, they’ll see my heart/Red and big, beautiful and gold/My life is pretty, and my life is bold.”

The project was launched in part by New York-based guitarist and vocalist Becca Stevens, who first conceived of setting the children’s poetry to music for her performance at an AFL event in 2009; the response was so overwhelming that she enlisted some of her jazz brethren to collaborate on a full-length album. Vocalists Gretchen Parlato and Kate McGarry, pianists Taylor Eigsti and Aaron Parks, and bassist Larry Grenadier are among those she tapped for the project. The album reaches a fever pitch on “Trapped Orca in an Aquarium,” performed by Stevens, written by an 11-year-old named Michael: “I am a thunderstorm causing havoc wherever I go/Like with the doctors I always stump and make them think.”

Stevens, Parlato and Hampton also contribute their compositional and vocal talents to Home: Gift of Music, an all-vocal benefit album to aid the relief effort for the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan. The natural disaster may have faded from the headlines, but so many are still recovering from the damage. Dozens of musicians contribute music inspired by the earthquake and the emotions it stirred, with all but one of the songs having been composed exclusively for the album. (Abbey Lincoln’s “The Music Is the Magic” is covered by Claudia Acuña.) Produced by Rio Sakairi, the director of programming at the Jazz Gallery, the album is a microcosm of the innovative scene that has formed around that jazz breeding ground, featuring many Jazz Gallery alumni, including Acuña, drummer Johnathan Blake, saxophonist John Ellis, guitarist Doug Wamble, vocalist Sachal Vasandani and bassist Ben Williams, among others.

“If It Was,” composed by Hampton and featuring Parlato and saxophonist Dayna Stephens, opens the album with the same cautiously optimistic tone cultivated by My Life Is Bold. “If it really might have been once, maybe it will once again,” Parlato sings. Her elemental voice has a diaphanous texture that complements Hampton’s easygoing guitar thrum. Parlato and Stevens serve as a backdrop to much of the album, singing background vocals throughout. Stevens contributes two songs, “Coming Home” and “Tillery,” both of which feature complex vocal harmonizing, a talent she inherited from her father, choral composer William Stevens. The title track, by Ellis, is the saxophonist’s vocal debut and the surprise of the album, an arresting ballad that captures the trauma of getting uprooted; “Hold it steady, hold it tight/We’ll make it through, we’ll make it right/Just don’t let go, and know we’ll find a way-a way back home.” Ellis can really sing.

Originally Published