There’s a wonderful scene in the 1954 version of A Star Is Born where matinee idol Norman Maine (James Mason) bolsters the courage of band singer Esther Blodgett (Judy Garland) as she prepares for a screen test. “Forget the camera,” he says, “it’s the Downbeat Club at 3 o’clock in the morning and you’re singing for yourself and for the boys in the band—mainly for yourself.” Such is the richly intimate, ebon mood and, indeed, the midcentury era so skillfully captured by Hilary Gardner across her sophomore album as a leader.
Gardner and Israeli-born pianist Ehud Asherie (a cornerstone of her earlier disc, 2014’s The Great City) wrap eight standards in cashmere, the most recent of which, “Make Someone Happy,” dates from 1960. Asherie’s astute accompaniment, understatedly elegant while sagely inventive, recalls the bespoke mastery of Eddie Higgins. Gardner is at once smoky and introspective, luxuriating in such vintage gems as “Shadow Waltz,” “Sweet and Slow,” “A Ship Without a Sail” and “Seems Like Old Times”; shaping a blithely tender “I Used to Be Color Blind”; and nuzzling deep within the gentle contentment of Harold Arlen and Truman Capote’s “I Never Has Seen Snow,” from 1954’s House of Flowers. Though the pace occasionally quickens a degree or two, only once does the simpatico duo fully disrupt the after-midnight hush, bouncing through a well-spiced “Everything I’ve Got.”