The two CDs under review this month [Jeremy Siskind's "Housewarming" and Harold Mabern's "Afro Blue"] are both led by pianists; however, they both qualify as vocal albums since the majority of the tracks on each disc feature singers.
There's been a trend in recent jazz releases to load up albums with guest artists to boost the commercial appeal of the record. I suppose both of these albums could be accused of continuing the practice, but in each case, the track list includes several original songs, and using different vocal colors to highlight the music and lyrics is certainly a valid artistic reason for bringing in the guest singers. There is also a casual atmosphere to these albums which invites the feeling that the vocalists are simply sitting in with the band instead of being part of a huge marketing plan.
Jeremy Siskind's "Housewarming" (Brooklyn Jazz Underground) features a trio which has built its reputation through a series of house concerts. The group offers a wide-open sound and a highly accessible style. Vocalist Nancy Harms has a welcoming vocal tone, exceptional pitch and fine diction. On the more adventurous tracks, she lets her voice get breathy, and the combination of the soft vocal sound and her remarkable flexibility reminds me of Gretchen Parlato and Sara Serpa. Lucas Pino doubles on clarinet, bass clarinet, and tenor sax, and he produces a unique timbre on each horn, which keeps the backgrounds fresh and varied.
Siskind's full rich piano fills all of the roles of the rhythm section, and provides rich accompaniments for Pino, Harms, and guest artists Kurt Elling, Peter Eldridge and Kendra Shank. The trio's instrumentation was inspired by the group led by British vocalist Norma Winstone on the albums "Somewhere Called Home" and "Dance Without Answer", and Siskind reveals that influence on his original "When He Loved You" by setting the lyric in the third person (a favorite device of Winstone's) and in the eerily-distant sounding chord progressions of "Moonlight in Vermont" (which echoes the work of Winstone's pianist Glauco Venier and reedman Klaus Gesing). Shank's sole feature on the album, "Ghost Dance" makes a further connection, as the song's jagged wide intervals and Shank's vocal timbre evoke Winstone.
Elling's deep baritone caresses each syllable of Siskind's original, "Light" and his sound is matched by Pino's intense, passionate tenor sax. Eldridge's lush romantic baritone enriches the title tune and he joins with Harms on the pastoral "New Old West Theme." Siskind's lyrics (which can be read on his website) reflect his love of poets Jorge Luis Borges, Seamus Heaney and Derek Walcott; the music sets the words in a way that their basic meaning can be understood on first hearing, and appreciated on repeated listening. This thoughtful and enveloping collection of songs (many of which tell of the joys of home life) makes for a memorable album and — for those who attend or host house concerts — a perfect match of music and venue.