Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Andrea Wolper's "The Small Hours"

I rarely fall for a singer, but when I do... (See Lounge v. Jazz for the rationale.)

Nonetheless, I've fallen hard for Andrea Wolper's "The Small Hours".

In just twelve songs (two-and-a-half originals) Andrea introduces herself, invites us inside, and (with the grace and ease that is possible only after considerable woodshedding), gets us on her wavelength... and does so on her own terms, no less.

By rights, I should dislike several of her selections (I'll leave you to guess which ones); yet it is on these very songs that she wins me over. This, to me, borders on magic.

The phenomenon is that her soul and vulnerability, bolstered by tremendous chops and an understated delivery that comes only with confidence and mastery of one's instrument, shine through the glossy veneer of such chestnuts as the CD's opener, "Dancing on the Ceiling" (okay, there's one).

The effect is to reveal that which was (who knew?) buried deep within what was nothing more than a 'nice pop tune'.

The paradox is that there is no gimmickry here. Her take on "Dancing" is straightforward, soul-baring, and perfect. And she does this again and again, throughout the CD; sidestepping the corniness that could have been "Night Time Was My Mother" or "Little Suzie's Humming" (by Cathi Walkup). By all rights I ought to have dismissed this last one as being so much fluff (I prefer the darker modes), but damned if I don't tap and sing along!

One reservation I often harbor with respect to singers is my biased perception that, if you don't compose, you are somehow less invested (as if standing alone, on stage, with only a microphone is easy or safe). Andrea has included two originals ("Gray, Not Blue" and "Not Sleeping in Your Arms") and has set a poem by D. Nurske to her own melody ("Rendezvous in Providence").

"Gray, Not Blue" is a straightforward 12-bar blues with unconventional, thoughtfully wry lyrics (e.g., I'm tryin' to hold onto all the things that I once thought I knew. Shadows creep and steal my sleep and that is why I'm gray, not blue.).

"Not Sleeping In Your Arms" is destined, as others have asserted, to become a future standard; albeit a wistful, hot-and-steamy one.

Even the avant-garde-ists among us will find something satisfying in her loosened, freeform rendition of "You and the Night and the Music", and her impressionistic "Rendezvous in Providence".

And just to prove that it's not so dear an accomplishment, Andrea includes two ringers, each with its own twist.

The song that hooked me was "Small Day Tomorrow"; a poignant Bob Dorough diamond-in-the-rough if ever there was one. And, while the composition veritably screams his name, I'll hazard that Andrea's wrested this one from his very respectable grip. If you can listen and not be affected, check yourself for vital signs.

It took me several listenings before I realized that Andrea's "Moanin'" and the well-known Bobby Timmons/Jon Hendricks song (most famously rendered by Art Blakey) were one and the same.., which is just beautiful, as I often rail at musicians (on my stereo) who cover or redo a song to no purpose; all the time raising the question, 'Why'd you bother?'. The difference between Blakey's and Wolper's versions is the difference between 'hot' and 'smoldering'. Where they dive in, she sidles up to... and at about half the tempo.

Consider: These are songs eleven and twelve on the disc.

Also included are such unlikely and varied pieces as: Van Morrison's "Crazy Love"; Blossom Dearie's "I Like You, You're Nice", and "Today" (
The New Christy Minstrels!).

At the core of this music is the trio. Joining Andrea are guitarist, Ron Affif, and Andrea's husband, bassist, Ken Filiano. All I've said of Andrea holds for these musicians, as well: confident, understated, accomplished, and oh-so-soulful. Their less-is-more aesthetic is not borne of minimalism, but, rather, of 'essentialism'. This is a particularly noteworthy testament to Ken Filiano's virtuosity and versatility, as he is best known for his own avant-garde excursions and for his work with Dom Minasi. The trio is joined by other notables on various tracks, including Jamey Haddad and Victor Lewis on drums (that's Victor on "You and the Night and the Music"); Lou Marini on flute; and Frank London on (haunting) trumpet and flugelhorn.

If I were to level any criticism at all against the CD, it might be that I wish it included a few selections in which she really belted one out. But then even that assertion rings immediately hollow. Applying such boorish, even Procrustean, formulae to such a thoughtful, delicate, nearly flawless work is to ruin it; all due to an insistence that it supposedly 'doesn’t swing hard enough'. Because – and let's be very clear about this – it does swing; very solidly, but very subtly and quietly. It's as if Ms. Wolper is showing us her most confident side; the side that says, 'even if so much is riding on this CD, I know I don't have anything to prove'. Furthermore, it appears she knows what works.

"The Small Hours" is intimate and easy-going and friendly and comfortable and very very satisfying on all sorts of 'entertainment' and musical levels. So what if it's not party music?


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