Peter Appleyard: Sophisticated Ladies

The idea of building an album around a spectrum of singers is hardly new, but Peter Appleyard does it with, as the title suggests, smooth sophistication. The 83-year-old vibraphonist also proves a most democratic leader, opting for elegantly understated arrangements that allow the 13 female vocalists he’s assembled to dominate the spotlight while also providing plenty of space for each of his quintet mates to stretch out.

Appleyard is British by birth, but has spent almost his entire professional career in Toronto, and fills the album exclusively with Canadian singers and players. The latter comprise four of the Great White North’s foremost jazzmen: bassist Neil Swainson, guitarist Reg Schwager, drummer Terry Clarke and pianist John Sherwood.

Among the ladies, best-known Stateside are Sophie Milman, who delivers an intensely lush “If You Could See Me Now”; Ranee Lee, serving up a stunning “Midnight Sun”; and Molly Johnson, whose marvelously scorched Billie Holiday-esque aridity reaches new heights on a pensive “Sophisticated Lady.”

But several of the album’s finest moments come from less internationally renowned headliners, including an ice-cool “Paper Moon” from Elizabeth Shepherd, a sly and silky “After You’ve Gone” from Emilie-Claire Barlow and a vivacious “Satin Doll” from newcomer Barbra Lica, whose similarity to Stacey Kent is remarkable. Most impressive are Heather Bambrick, expertly swinging a mid-tempo “High How the Moon,” and Jackie Richardson, ushered in by a long, leisurely Appleyard solo before she tears the roof off “Georgia on My Mind.”