JazzTimes by Christopher Loudon
Though Judy Wexler’s reputation as one of the West Coast’s most compelling vocalists was cemented some time ago, What I See, her fourth release, suggests a heightened maturity, an even greater sense of assured imagination. Much like Abbey Lincoln—and at this point in Wexler’s musical progress, the comparison is quite valid—her skills as an actress are skillfully exercised, adding vivid shadings to her interpretations. Consider, for example, her opener, King Pleasure’s “Tomorrow Is Another Day,” its optimistic promise underscored by a cautionary hint of trepidation.
Wexler’s passion for unearthing lost treasures rivals Michael Feinstein’s. Among her plunder: an inky rendering of Johnny Mercer and John Williams’ furtive “The Long Goodbye”; a tender unfolding of André and Dory Previn’s “Just for Now”; a gently uplifting treatment of Jerry Merrick’s “Follow”; and a slow, hazy meander through Benny Carter’s ethereal “Another Time, Another Place.” Shifting to more familiar fare, Wexler adds a cunning reading of “A Kiss to Build a Dream On,” a free, sunny “Laughing at Life” and a clear-eyed untangling of Carlos Lyra’s “A Certain Sadness.”
On her previous discs, Wexler worked primarily with pianist and arranger Alan Pasqua, though Jeff Colella shared those duties with Pasqua on 2008’s Dreams & Shadows. Here, Colella is given full rein, and his deft touch is integral to the album’s multifaceted canniness.
All About Jazz by Dan Bilawsky
Vocalist Judy Wexler is more than a mere singer of songs. She’s an actress, mood painter, song archaeologist and vocalist par excellence, and those designations shouldn’t be taken as independent virtues; they all merge in her marvelous musical pursuits.
What I See is Wexler’s fourth album, but it only took two—Easy On The Heart (Rhombus Records, 2005) and Dreams & Shadows (Jazzed Media, 2008)— to establish her as one of the most highly respected vocal artists on the West Coast. She furthered her sterling reputation with the all-encompassing Under A Painted Sky (Jazzed Media, 2011), and she’s likely to do the same with this one; it’s a real beaut.
What I See finds Wexler covering a lot of ground again, as she moves from Benny Carter to John Williams to King Pleasure. She’s in familiar company, working with some longtime colleagues like multi-reedist Bob Sheppard, drummer Steve Hass and pianist/arranger Jeff Colella, but she continually avoids the familiar in all other aspects of her work; she doesn’t radically reinterpret anything or purposely pounce on never-before-heard numbers, but she also doesn’t tread over well-worn ground.
Wexler kicks off the album with a comfortably swinging take on Pleasure’s “Tomorrow Is Another Day.” Her reading of this better-things-are-on-the-horizon statement is neither depressed nor sunny; it’s matter-of-factly honest about the topic at hand. A similar sense of clarity and truthfulness shines through on every number. Wexler’s acting credentials no doubt help her in this regard, but it never sounds like she’s acting. When Judy Wexler sings a song, it becomes her song and her story, period. She’s more than convincing on “Convince Me,” a slow jam-of-a-song if ever there was one, and her voice rises to the occasion on “The Moon Is Made Of Gold.” The mere mention of spring—on “They Say It’s Spring” and “Just For Now”—brings a blooming quality to her voice, and she carries “Follow” forward in her own inimitable fashion.
The A-list musicians that join Wexler on this journey also do their part to make this a magical listen. Sheppard is ever-impressive, delivering the goods on bass clarinet (“Tomorrow Is Another Day”) and adding warmth with his alto flute (“A Certain Sadness”), and Ron Stout adds a touch of brass beauty to the proceedings (“The Moon Is Made Of Gold”). Colella and guitarist Larry Koonse match Wexler in the sensitivity department and prove to be the instrumental MVPs on the project.
What I See, much like Wexler’s prior album, is a marvel of sincerity and beauty.
“Judy Wexler has released only four CDs since 2005, when she debuted with Easy on the Heart, but she has a solid reputation among jazz critics and other musicians. She is also an actor who has appeared on television and in the theater, and that background perhaps accounts for her ability to capture the meaning of a song and tell its story. She hits the right emotional notes to give listeners a sense of what a song is telling us, and her skills as a jazz singer give her interpretations rhythmic excitement and unpredictability.
She also has a knack for choosing tunes that should be better known and, since they haven’t been widely covered, the results are fresh and lively. Her newest disc, What I See, looks to writers as disparate as King Pleasure and film composer John Williams. “Tomorrow Is Another Day” is as jaunty as Pleasure’s original, but Wexler adds a touch of hopefulness to his realism, with Bob Sheppard’s bass clarinet adding a slightly dark hue.
Williams’s “The Long Goodbye” is from his score for Robert Altman’s film adaptation (1973) of Raymond Chandler’s novel. The version I know best is Jack Sheldon’s, featured in the soundtrack, which has its own wry charm. Wexler brings more nuance to Johnny Mercer’s lyrics, however, and when she sings “when a missed hello becomes a long goodbye,” there’s a feeling of longing and a hint of tragedy that Sheldon’s version lacks. Ron Stout’s beautiful flugelhorn solo adds some tension, and, with the help of pianist Jeff Colella’s chord splashes, helps evoke the dark beauty of Chandler’s L.A.
Wexler resurrects another gem, Jerry Merrick’s “Follow,” best known from Richie Havens’s version on his album Mixed Bag (1967). Wexler can reinvigorate a pop tune and remind us why it grabbed us in the first place. She bravely takes on “A Kiss to Build a Dream On,” a song associated with Louis Armstrong, and the result is both moving and true to the original. Larry Koonse’s ukulele playing helps set the mood, and Scott Whitfield’s fluid trombone solo brings the slightly old-fashioned arrangement into focus.
Jeff Colella co-produced and arranged What I See, and the musicians bring variety and taste to the charts he gives them. They get a chance to show their chops expansively in “Tomorrow Is Another Day” and “Follow,” but in many tracks, their short solos are focused and effective. The musicians lock together effectively throughout, as in Rickie Lee Jones’s “The Moon Is Made of Gold,” where Koonse on guitar and Stout on flugelhorn underscore the tune’s warm ease. In the end, however, this is Wexler’s album, and she can sing a line like “love is too quixotic / an erotic treasure chest,” from “Convince Me,” in a way that crystalizes the song and makes it hers.
Talley Sherwood engineered What I See, and it has an exciting, polished sound, though I occasionally wished for some analog warmth. Sherwood has a good ear for microphone placement, however, and the instruments are arrayed intelligently behind Wexler, whose voice is razor sharp and centered. This is my second review of a Judy Wexler disc and it confirms my feeling that she deserves comparison with the very best jazz singers working today.”
Continuing the work found in her last release, Under a Painted Sky , Judy Wexler is expanding her wont in the same smooth, clear, lucid manner, a good deal of the attribution going as well to co-producer and arranger/pianist Jeff Colella, the cat who spent nearly 20 years with Lou Rawls and who here dials back the atmosphere from Lou’s oft exuberant and bluesy to Judy’s mellifluous and sensual, though she brings that up a notch with a good deal of very refined bop in her phrasings and timing. In terms of originality via interpretation, this singer is a deconstructionist who tears down the elements to find what others missed, then puts it all together again, but always with a bright positive spin even when wistful. There’s always an element of dream here.
The band is once more excellent and, like last time, as often understated as gently emphatic. Colella’s pianistics are frequently soft drops of rain, shards of light, birdsong settling down from above, falling all around Wexler’s centrality. Ron Stout pulls out flugelhorn and trumpet, escorting the chanteuse by the hand through Blue Note doors, harking back to the roots of The Great American Songbook bowing to Miles & Co. (w/Gil Evans, of course!) while listening to modern pop’s latter day hybrid reversions to its progenitors’ geneses.
“Just for Now” hits Kenny Rankin heights in finely re-tuned lines stepping over the border wherein singing becomes as much an element sitting with the instruments as vocal chords can craft, a sax-like quality that Grover Washington might well have undertaken. I was particularly taken, though, with “Follow,” the song Richie Havens had done much with on his ’67 Mixed Bag LP, and its zen-pensive “If all the things you see ain’t what they seem / Then don’t mind me ’cause I ain’t nothin’ but a dream”. The blissful equanimity with which Wexler addresses the philosophy and music is exquisite, so much so that there’s nothing to add, nothing to subtract.
All About Jazz By Nick Mondello
When they excavated the world-famous La Brea tar pits in Los Angeles, scientists discovered an other-worldly array of fossilized treasures. Who would have thought that, millennia ago, in the middle of Tinseltown, saber-toothed tigers and mammoths were sashaying down Rodeo Drive? In an analogous way, What I See from Judy Wexler yields surprisingly terrific finds, primarily from material that has been available right in front but overlooked. A very fine vocal talent also surfaces.
With this, her fourth CD, Wexler grabs a handful of these pieces and performs them—with the help of some of L.A.’s finest First-Callers— with esprit, taste and wry humor. Wexler’s vocal timbre seems ideal for the range of material here—from ballads to softer rock via broad- ranged selections from John Williams (“The Long Goodbye”) to Richie Havens (“Follow”), et al. More restrained than robust, her voice has a minimalist’s tinge, vibratoless, clear as virgin spingwater, but always on target pitch and intonation-wise. Although it’s not disingenuously cute, there’s more Blossom Dearie in her sound and lyric displays than, say, a Kral— Irene or Diana, she with the second “l.” The overall sonority fits the unique material to a T.
Props are in order for pianist Jeff Colella’s fine arrangements and playing, which frame Wexler’s approach well. The solo efforts on the session are as tasty and apropos as she on whom the spotlight shines. No toes are stepped on in these dances. Multi-woodwind ace Bob Sheppard’s solos shine bright, as do those of the enormously talented trumpeter, Ron Stout. Slide artist Scott Whitfield brings sweet tea to the garden party blowing on a Satchmo-signed standard (“A Kiss to Build a Dream On”). The rhythm section works the material, well without being intrusive or uninterested.
With a plethora of female vocalists umbilically tied to the Songbook and Ipanema Beach’s sandy sounds, Wexler—by way of taking a road less traveled—delivers a refreshing, satisfying musical excavation. Hooray for Hollywood.
Pop Culture Classics by Paul Freeman
When Judy Wexler sings, there’s a story in every song, every note, every syllable. In every moment, she stirs emotion. Her tone, her phrasing, her comprehension of lyric, ensure a rare and distinctive authenticity. Surrounding herself with gifted jazz musicians, Wexler makes a lasting impression on lovely tunes, familiar and obscure. While honoring Louis Armstrong’s revered version, she makes “A Kiss To Build A Dream On” her own. Other beauties include the expectant “Tomorrow Is Another Day,” a breezily swinging “They Say It’s Spring,” a provocative “Convince Me,” the tender, touching “A Certain Sadness.” The resilient “Laughing at Life,” one of Billie Holiday’s lesser known recordings, finds new life in Wexler’s caring hands. Wexler’s performances on “The Long Goodbye,” “Just For Now,” “Follow” and Benny Carter’s “Another Time, Another Place” are truly breathtaking. Pianist/producer Jeff Colella complements Wexler’s exquisite vocals with sensitive arrangements. Wexler is a consummate artist who makes each song an unforgettable journey.
L.A. Jazz Scene by Scott Yanow
One of the top jazz singers based in Los Angeles today, Judy Wexler recently released her fourth CD, What I See. After a fine start in her career, her third CD Under a Painted Sky was a major step forward. It featured Ms. Wexler performing little-known but superior material that was perfectly arranged to fit her voice. What I See continues in the same vein. While “A Kiss To Build A Dream On” and “Laughing at Life’ (which conclude the set) are occasionally performed, when was the last time one heard King Pleasure’s “Tomorrow Isa Another Day,” “A Certain Sadness,” Benny Carter’s “Another Time, Another Place” or John Williams’ “The Long Goodbye?”
But there is more to recommend about What I See than just hearing fine versions of obscure songs. Judy Wexler’s voice sounds consistently lovely, expressive and occasionally haunting. She fully understands the words that she interprets, and her version of “They Say It’s Spring” will stick in one’s mind long after it is heard.
The singer is joined by an all-star group of Los Angeles talent including pianist Jeff Colella (who is responsible for the arrangements), guitarist Larry Koonse, bassist Chris Colangelo and drummer Steve Hass. There are also excellent contributions from Bob Sheppard on bass clarinet and alto flute, trumpeter Ron Stout, trombonist Scott Whitfield and percussionist Billy Hulting.
What’s not to like? Judy Wexler’s What I See, available from www.jazzedmedia.com is highly recommended.
Jazz Society of Oregon by George Fendel
Somehow, you’ll have to deal with the fact that you’ll never see Wexler on “American Idol.” You see, she has this odd habit of simply singing the song. No screechy excess; no painful vocal posturing; and to make matters worse, no noisy guitars and electronic gorp for accompaniment. I look forward to every new Wexler disc because she’s a pure and dedicated jazz singer. Her intonation is spot-on; she often chooses little gems deserving of greater exposure; and she hires some of the best musicians in her neighborhood! She gets the proceedings underway here with a King Pleasure “re-write” of “Dear Old Stockholm,” a staple in the bop literature. King Pleasure called it “Tomorrow Is Another Day,” and I can’t couldn’t think of a single vocal version other than his until now. And Wexler nails it! “The Moon Is Made of Gold” follows with its romanticism and melodic perfection. Among other favorites on this altogether delicious disc are “They Say It’s Spring,” a near-standard with a lilting, uplifting melody; Andre and Dory Previn’s “Just For Now,” a real obscurity I’ve only heard sung by Jackie Cain; “Another Time, Another Place,” from the gorgeous writing of Benny Carter; and “Laughing At Life,” a lesson once sung so pleasurably by Billie Holiday. On all these and a half dozen more, Wexler and her handpicked jazz stars get absolutely everything just right!
One of the deepest relationships in jazz blossomed on the West Coast in the 1950s, when singer June Christy and arranger Pete Rugolo combined their gifts on numerous albums. Christy supplied the voice and the heart, which Rugolo set off to perfection with exquisite, often surprising arrangements. The deep understanding between the two artists was particularly evident in their choice of songs; both had an eye for the unusual and the neglected, as well as lyrics that conveyed emotions of a more complex hue.
This legendary synergy is mirrored in the modern-day relationship between West Coast singer Judy Wexler and arranger Jeff Colella, a bond that comprises the heart of Wexler’s excellent fourth album, What I See. Colella, who spent almost two decades as musical director for the great Lou Rawls, provides arrangements and piano and also co-produced the album with Wexler. The rest of the band consists of Wexler’s working trio of Chris Colangelo on bass and Steve Hass on drums, supplemented by a host of fine West Coast musicians who add an enchanting array of colors throughout the eleven songs.
Gems include the album opener “Tomorrow Is Another Day,” a swinging tune full of passion and charm. Wexler’s voice is consistently pleasing, warmly fluid with lovely turnings and rich pockets. The band offers up a delectable, effervescent swing, including a sparkling piano solo by Colella and a sultry bass clarinet solo from Bob Sheppard. “They Say It’s Spring” is a buoyant song with more of the group’s deliciously tasteful swing. Wexler’s phrasing is wonderfully clear and conversational; listening to her sing is often like talking with a wise friend. The tune also has a delightful guitar solo by Larry Koonse, full of chiming joy and clarity. And it’s great to hear the Louis Armstrong classic “A Kiss to Build a Dream On,” which Wexler infuses with lively spirit. Here Colella’s piano invokes an old-timey energy, and Ron Stout provides, appropriately, a graceful brass solo.
“A Certain Sadness” is a poignant song about a couple gently unraveling at the seams. Wexler does a beautiful job conveying the lyric’s tender wistfulness, again displaying marvelously direct, conversational phrasing. Sheppard offers a lovely alto flute solo, with the instrument’s lilting melancholy echoing the tune’s emotional hue. “The Long Goodbye” is a song about missed connections and regret, with Wexler conveying an intimate knowledge of life’s ironies without being world-weary or cynical. Scott Whitfield’s trombone mirrors these feelings perfectly, offering yet another example of Colella’s unerring instinct for using just the right instrumentation to support the mood of the lyrics.
Surely the ocean and the light and the lifestyle somehow combine to suffuse West Coast jazz with a very particular magic. What I See is a superb example of the continuing legacy of this brand of jazz, a tradition started by pioneers such as Christy and Rugolo and carried on by Wexler, Colella, and this fine gathering of musicians.
Jazz Police by Andrea Canter
What we hear: Judy Wexler finds new stories to tell
Los Angeles-based singer Judy Wexler grew up surrounded by music and theater, playing piano and appearing on stage through her college years. And it’s her background in theater that perhaps most informs her approach to song — not as an actress in character but as one who understands how to create mood and connection through words, in any form, as dramatic dialogue or vocal lyric. Her fourth release continues, and elevates, her reputation as a most effective interpreter of the stories and lyrics of a wide range of songwriters, culling mostly less familiar material from diverse sources, and turning each tune into a new jazz standard, regardless of its point of origin. What I See (Jazzed Media, 2013) offers Judy’s 11 snapshots of the range of human emotion, and what you hear are 11 compelling stories of love, loss, disappointment and hope. For the most part, Judy delivers her message by alterations of phrasing and rhythm, only once using scat, yet subtly wielding her voice as a horn throughout the set. And she is definitely a member of the band, led by pianist/arranger/co-producer Jeff Colella, a long-time associate of the late Lou Rawls.
The range of material on What I See reflects what we have come to expect from a Judy Wexler project — anything goes, from the pens of King Pleasure and Jerry Merrick to John Williams and Benny Carter, from the songbooks of Blossom Dearie and Louis Armstrong to the likes of Rickie Lee Jones and Richie Havens. Judy opens with King Pleasure’s “Tomorow Is Another Day,” her trademark emphasis on lyric and mood on swinging display in this song of hope and determination, while Bob Sheppard’s bass clarinet darkens the hue. Written by Richard Jones as a lullabye for daughter Rickie Lee, “The Moon Is Made of Gold” is a lightly swinging tale sporting a lovely flugelhorn from Ron Stout. The lyrics to “Convince Me (Love Is Inconvenient),” written by Joyce (aka Joyce Moreno), are exceedingly clever in both content and context (e.g., the well-placed rhyming of “chaotic… exotic… erotic… quixotic). Judy is the quintessential interpreter for such a find, as her diction is perfect–we capture every word. There’s a slightly samba-esque rhythm here that, with the lyrics, makes this track totally captivating. I am convinced!
Often performed by Blossom Dearie, “They Say It’s Spring” has a bouncy gait, bright and just sweet enough with support from Larry Koonse’s guitar. “A Certain Sadness” (Carlos Lyra’s tune sung by Astrud Gilberto) is given only the slightest hint of Brazil, Judy making it over as a more American ballad. “There’s something I know you are finding hard to say…” –so Judy finds a way to say it. John Williams/Johnny Mercer’s “The Long Goodbye” boasts mournful trumpet (Ron Stout) and dark percussion (Steve Hass, Billy Hulting), while Jerry Merrick’s “Follow” (popularized by Richie Havens) is a simply beautiful track featuring Judy’s collaboration with pianist Collela, suggesting a 60s folksong with a touch of swing. Notably recorded by the late Irene Kral, “Just for Now” (Dory and Andre Previn) finds Judy managing to suggest a horn without the usual, dramatic vocal gymnastics, instead using her “instrument” to draw out the higher pitched syllables in sync with the piano.
Knoose again shines on Benny Carter’s “Another Time, Another Place,” joining the rest of the rhythm section as delicate quartet backing for Judy as she and the band transport the listener to that other time and place. The final two tracks nod to two of jazz’s most significant influences. Can the listener suppress the sound of Louis Armstrong on “A Kiss to Build a Dream On?” Maybe, as Judy refocuses on the lyric and the swing, and again Ron Stout’s flugelhorn adds another element of grace. The recording ends on an up note associated with Billie Holiday, “Laughing at Life,” with clever references to “Put On a Happy Face.” It’s Judy’s only venture into scat in this set, more completely conjuring a horn on this Frisberg-ish finale.
What I See skillfully and joyfully translates to what we hear.
In Susan Stamberg’s introduction to a 2008 interview with jazz vocalist Judy Wexler about her second album, Dreams & Shadows, she says Wexler can sing anything. “Wexler can be slow and sad without being goopy. She can straight-out swing, and she can take a classic jazz riff and keep riffing, even with words.” Now the singer is out with album number four, What I See, and Stamberg’s introduction still fits.
There is a lot of evidence of “goopy-less” balladry and plenty of straight out swinging, and there is a bit of classic jazz riffing as well. Wexler does pretty much everything you want from a top jazz singer, and she does it with an admirable restraint. She rarely flies too high, never even getting close to the sun. There are the singers who like to indulge in pyrotechnics; there are those who favor a controlled aesthetic. Judy Wexler is all about control.
There are 11 songs on her new album, most of them lesser-known tunes or what the liner notes call “a treasure trove of overlooked songs.” This is neither the usual collection of pop or jazz standards, nor an ego-stroking selection of the artist’s original compositions. There may be a standard or two, but by and large these are songs likely to be unfamiliar to the modern audience, and there isn’t one of the 11 that bears the singer’s name.
So if you are looking for the familiarity of tried and true material, you are in the wrong place. If you’re up for something of an adventurous program exploring what may be new territory, this is an album you are going to want to hear. The one standard on the album everyone probably knows is “A Kiss to Build a Dream On,” a tune made famous by Louis Armstrong, here delivered as a kind of sweet tribute to the master. Then of course she ends the album with her take on the not quite as well-known Billie Holiday number, “Laughing at Life.” She even adds a little scat to her interpretation.
Her version of “Follow,” a Jerry Merrick song best known probably as a recorded by Richie Havens, brings out its latent jazz potential. It is one of the highlights of the album, as is the swinging opening number, King Pleasure’s “Tomorrow Is Another Day.” She gives the tune a swinging traditional reading that gives it new life. The solo from the bass clarinet of Bob Sheppard works like a charm.
She turns seductress in the ballad “Convince Me” and there is a real story behind her version of “A Certain Sadness.” Benny Carter’s “Another Time, Another Place” gets a true jazz treatment and pianist, co-producer, arranger Jeff Colella adds some atmospheric work on the piano. Indeed, the support from the entire ensemble of musicians — Larry Koonse (guitar, ukulele), Scott Whitfield (trombone), Ron Stout (trumpet, flugelhorn), Chris Colangelo (bass), Steve Hass (drums), and Billy Hultin (percussion) — is top of the line.
What I See is the work of singer who knows what she wants to do with a song and makes sure she does it.
Judy Wexler has a cool, relaxed style that fits in with the Los Angeles culture. What I See is much more than a vocal collection, it is a seamless marriage of music and lyrics. Wexler gets strong support from her band, a polished team that includes guitarist Larry Koonse, bassist Chris Colangelo and Bob Sheppard on bass clarinet and flute. They coalesce around a set of eleven lesser-known standards. Jeff Colella’s (p) arrangements marry Judy’s voice with the band and present the material in a fresh new light. It is not flashy but rather contagious!
Judy Wexler gives true meaning to the word organic as it relates to popular song.
Eclectic and organic are two words that are the musical equivalent to “amazing” and “awesome” as used in everyday life. The latest effort from Judy Wexler is aptly titled What I See and is one of the finer examples of what connecting to a song is all about. Wexler’s growth as a vocal artist is nothing short of “amazing” while holding true to a deconstructed approach to some delightfully left of center material from such luminaries as Rickie Lee Jones, Richie Havens and Benny Carter. Reharming a work without ever losing sight of the original melody is a beautiful thing.
Most singers with a stage background have a difficult if not impossible task of shaking that theatrical presentation when performing. Wexler is a vocal chameleon easily adapting to a diverse collection of material and with the technical proficiency more closely associated with the traditional jazz singer. The band here consists of some familiar names with pianist and former Lou Rawls Music Director Jeff Colella leading the charge and with ace guitarist Larry Koonse following closely.
Highlights? Literally too many to list as each of the eleven tracks here are unique portraits of not only the artist that created the original work but of the meticulous reinvention of these rarities as given by Wexler. “The Long Goodbye” from the classic 1973 Robert Altman film is given a second chance at life along with the pre-World War II gem, “A Kiss To Build A Dream On.”
I had the distinct pleasure of reviewing “Under A Painted Sky” and the exponential growth as an artist portrayed with What I See is nothing short of “awesome.”
In the contemporary world we live in today, the musical industry — particularly pertaining to singers — has fashioned itself as a business type of showcase. Singers blessed with good lungs and pizzazz for movement –- particularly those that can belt the high note, are regarded as the best of the crop. Hidden in the world of singing is the troubadour or balladeer who can contain his or her volume while being faithful to the lyric and being articulate in delivery without so much as a hint of musical theatrics or hysterics.
Folks, such as us, who listen to jazz and appreciate the quality of an interpretation, whether it is a standard or jazz classic, find it fresh and delicious when an artist presents us with new material and new renditions on some of the standard ballads or up-tempo jazz classics. On this new CD delivered by Judy Wexler, we’re treated to all of this. What makes this music so special on this particular album are the songs she has selected. These are not the everyday standard ballads and love songs that we’ve come to expect on new recordings. Instead. Judy has treated us to some of the more obscure yet beautiful songs that we probably have heard at some time in our past and fail to remember. On this CD she reincarnated them with a special blend of understanding while she becomes one with the song in her unique fashion. Judy is a straight-ahead jazz singer with a deep penchant for the lyrics. After listening a couple of times to the music, I feel as if I were listening to someone tell me stories, mostly sad love stories. There is never any overdramatic emphasis on the lyrics; only heartfelt feelings over a lost love or an affair gone awry.,
Sometime ago I had the good fortune of seeing Judy perform live at a club near us in Temecula California called “The Merc”. Having gotten to the club early – by the way, it’s a very small club – Judy came by and personally introduced herself to those of us waiting to hear her perform. Speaking with her briefly, I found her to be inquisitive and interested in those of us she conversed with. I would imagine that this is a character trait of her personality and the way she treats the music she performs.
I loved all of this music. It is not overly done to dramatize the lyric, but rather, she just tells us the story and we can sense and feel the passions and meanings connected to each particular song.
To say that Judy gets some fine backing by the musicians accompanying her on this set would be the understatement of the year. The cream of Los Angeles jazz players, headed by Jeff Colella, who did the arrangements and accompanies Judy on piano, offers superb support. Bob Sheppard has some mesmerizing bass clarinet solos as well as some fine flugelhorn injections by Ron Stout. The venerable Larry Koonse offers some of his inimitable backings to help make this set of music memorable.
I would be remiss not to mention the inclusion of a song that takes me back many years. Louis Armstrong, of course, is best remembered for “A Kiss To Build A Dream On.” Judy does a superb job in bringing back this melody to us. Trombonist Scott Whitfield plays wryly and relaxed to set the nostalgic and memorable mood.
Judy Wexler has just finished recording her 4th album, “What I See”. Judy has a marvelous, pure, clean voice, but that’s only one part of what makes her such a special singer. First and foremost, Judy is a wonderful storyteller. When you hear Judy sing any of the songs that she carefully hand picks, she brings life to the lyrics. She has the rare ability to magically combine the story with her beautiful voice and captures the full attention of the listener. The songs Judy recorded on this album cover a wide range of times and styles; and, yet, Judy has been able to put them together as if these songs were written just for this album. There are few singers who have the ability to select the songs Judy has and bring them to life as she does. After selecting her songs, Judy applies the final magic to her CD by bringing together some of the most talented sidemen on the West Coast: Larry Koonse on Guitar, Bob Sheppard on Bass Clarinet and Alto Sax, Ron Stout on Trumpet and Flugelhorn, Scott Whitfield on Trombone, Billy Hulting on Percussion, Chris Colangelo on Bass, and Steve Hass on Drums. These are a lot of parts to pull together and make it all fit together perfectly. So Judy brings in her long-time Pianist/Arranger, Jeff Colella to co-produce the album. Jeff, who spent almost two decades as the Music Director for Lou Rawls, put together all the beautiful arrangements that make this CD one of the best Jazz albums of the year.
You sat through Wexler’s first three albums knowing she was the real deal just waiting for the time she would pop wide open. Here it is, the fulfillment of all the promises that were all pretty well kept anyway along the way. With the kind of driving vibe Tom Waits had on “Nighthawks at the Diner” when he wasn’t being laconic, Wexler can’t help but become a hipster darling with this outing. With great, clear phrasing, a special kind of affinity for the chestnuts she’s rolled out here and an overall hard driving kind of seduction, Wexler is going to make you putty in her hands. Smoking stuff that just doesn’t run out of gas even after it’s gone the distance. Check it out.
What I See is the fourth album from vocalist Judy Wexler. It is her richest so far. Wexler seems to have listened to a lot of Irene Kral’s recordings, for she has a similar timbre to her voice, and her phrasing reflects an influence from Kral. Her choice of songs for this recording is interesting and sophisticated. The most familiar selection is “A Kiss to Build a Dream On.” There are a few semi-standards like “They Say It’s Spring,” “Another Time, Another Place” and “Laughing at Life.” She goes to disparate sources like King Pleasure (“Tomorrow Is Another Day”), Rickie Lee Jones (“The Moon Is Made of Gold”), Richie Havens (“Follow”) and Astrid Gilberto (“A Certain Sadness”). Her Kral influence is most evident on the Dory Previn/Andre Previn song “Just for Now,” a tune that was included on the live album of Kral material released in 2004 on the Jazzed Media Label, Just for Now.
Assisting Wexler on this fine album are pianist Jeff Colella, who also wrote the arrangements, bassist Chris Colangelo and drummer Steve Hass. Others who contributed on various tracks are Larry Koonse on guitar and ukulele, Scott Whitfield on trombone, Ron Stout on flugelhorn and trumpet, Bob Sheppard on bass clarinet and alto flute, and Billy Hulting on percussion. While there is nice variety to the program, the quality of Wexler’s vocalizing and the musicianship supporting her lends a consistency to the proceedings that makes the total package feel organically whole.
What I’ve always liked about vocalist Judy Wexler is that she sounds like a working class lady. Picture if your waitress at the diner had pitch and rhythm. This is Wexler — no histrionics, no false seduction, or pizzazz. She takes your order of Scrapple, and breaks into a song like “Convince Me” or “Laughing At Life” like it’s a normal day at Norms. Few people can sound like they’re connecting with you in that way. She also takes songs not normally associated with jazz standards. Sure, you’ve got a lovely take of the Depression Era “A Kiss To Build A Dream On,” but pieces like “The Moon Is Made of Gold” or “The Long Goodbye” and especially “Just For Now” are surprise crunchy treats in a Whitman Sampler world where most boxes are just filled with the same milk chocolates . Her sense of timing and pace is exemplified by how she keeps toe to toe with the band which includes Jeff Colella/p-arr, Larry Koonse/g, Scott Whitfield/tb, Ron Stout/tp, Bob Sheppard/bc-fl, Chris Colangelo/b, Steve Hass/dr and Billy Hulting/perc. And, just like the best of diners, you don’t realize how good it is until you miss it about an hour later for its aftertaste.
On What I See, the fourth and latest recording from Judy Wexler, the singer’s soothing vocals are paired with outstanding musicianship for another great production. Wexler is joined by co-producer and pianist Jeff Colella, bassist Chris Colangelo, drummer Steve Hass, and a host of guest performers including Bob Sheppard, trombonist Scott Whitfield, percussionist Blly Hulting and trumpeter Ron Stout. The project covers the gamut of musical emotions from uptempo swinging to soulful ballads, as inspired by compositions written or made famous by Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Andre Previn, King Pleasure and Benny Carter. The tunes are made even more pleasing by Wexler’s warm voice and delivery, as well as the great arrangements and musicality herein.
Of all the facets to Judy Wexler, the Los Angeles-based singer, her ability to tell stories stands out the most. Back in 2008, Dreams & Shadows found her evolving her instincts to swing. In 2011, Under a Painted Sky pulled on that sensibility and found wonder in the world. And now in 2013, What I See crystallizes the journey so far.
For her latest outing, Wexler sings tunes arranged by Jeff Colella and once again uses her gifts to illuminate a sense of curiosity, cunning and perception. And far from being a typical parsing of the American songbook, What I See digs deeper into the musical consciousness for familiar but underappreciated gems.
That the disc starts with a rendition of King Pleasure’s “Tomorrow is Another Day” is a testament to this fact. This tune starts with a dance between Colella’s piano and Bob Sheppard’s noir-tinged bass clarinet, giving it an under-the-streetlamp aroma that only darkens with Wexler’s vocals. Steve Hass pipes in drum accents to match the finessed brushes, while Chris Colangelo’s bass walks along. The architecture of the song, how the elements pour into the glass, is the focus throughout What I See, exemplifying the notion that the vocalist works as part of the unit in service of the tune. She isn’t a showy singer, endorsing her larger purpose.
That’s not to say that Wexler is taken over, of course. She assumes ownership of “They Say It’s Spring,” popping into a nearly lightheaded step that soaks up the love and gentle rain with every sweet note from Larry Koonse’s guitar. Or there’s the twinkling “A Kiss To Build a Dream On,” a classy and swaying joint that features Colella’s flowing and flourishing ivories and Scott Whitfield’s stalwart soloing.
Perhaps it’s “Convince Me” that plays to Wexler’s vocal gifts the most. Her diction is on-point and her breathy-but-modest intonations stroke the corners of the lines with class. Listen to how she phrases “Look into my eyes before my common sense is lost” and try not to fall under her spell. And she certainly deserves bonus points for including the word “quixotic” without sounding forced.
Her most fully realized recording yet, What I See represents Wexler’s view from the top. But rather than looking down on these songs and advancing her own perception at all costs, she uses her skill and understanding to live in the moments worth singing and dreaming about.