Blitheness is hard to pull off under the best of circumstances. But Gazarek, a singer whose immediate likability conceals an enduring subtlety, manages that trick and a few others. Among them: making luck sound close enough for jazz. Juxtapose her devil-may-care renditions of Ben Fold’s “The Luckiest” and Leonard Bernstein’s “Lucky to Be Me,” and you might partially fathom why ancient Rome considered Fortuna a goddess. More impressive: the way she makes Johnny Mercer and Jerome Kern’s “I’m Old-Fashioned” sound close enough for now.
The imaginative risks that this album takes with the music of America’s greatest composer remain well within the spirit if not always the letter of the composer himself. The melodies remain instantly recognizable, the lyrics (when there are any) unchanged. What has changed: some of the tempos and many of the instruments. Jackson being a pop guy, he finds roles for electric guitars and synthesizers. But Christian McBride’s bass keeps things grounded. And, were Ellington alive today, he probably wouldn’t worry about the letter of his law either.
Metheny gets top billing, but the musicians whose names appear in the fine print are the reason for this album’s title. No mere showcase for Metheny’s guitars (acoustic and electric), or guitar synthesizers, these pieces capture a fluid ensemble at its most virtuosically sleek. If any element stands out, it’s Chris Potter’s saxes, which accentuate the positivity generated by Ben Williams (bass) and Antonio Sánchez (drums). If any song stands out, it’s “Signals (Orchestrion Sketch),” in which the unity gets tested for 11-and-a-half thrilling minutes.
Maybe it’s that she takes these standards as defined by the late trumpeter Chet Baker in his singing mode too slowly. Maybe it’s that she isn’t feeling the lure of heroin. Maybe it’s that she’s Brazilian. Whatever the reason, Souza conveys little of the doomed, desperate magic that to this day makes Baker’s youthful 1950s detours into singing special. Maybe she had second thoughts herself. And maybe those are why she has also just released the native-tongued Duos III—and why it seems more up her alley.
Not that one can easily detect such music in his playing these days, but it’s worth noting that the 42-year-old jazz pianist Eric Reed numbers among his earliest influences the crossover-gospel pioneer Andraé Crouch. That Reed knew Crouch’s music isn’t strange. Reed is a pastor’s kid after all. But that he’s willing to mention such a relatively uncool source in explaining how he became adept at performing jazz—the coolest music there is—does testify to an admirable unselfconsciousness.
So do Reed’s recent Thelonius Monk tributes, last year’s The Dancing Monk and this year’s The Baddest Monk (Savant). What’s the difference between a “dancing” Monk and a “bad” one? The former required only a drummer and a bassist, and it swung. The latter adds a sax and a trumpet, and it swings harder, a fact that probably indicates Reed’s increasing comfort with decreasing that something else may increase—and that The Funky Monk cannot be far behind.