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MY FAVORITE COLOR
Jackie Allen – Vocals
Tito Carillo – Trumpet
Steve Eisen – Woodwinds
John Moulder – Guitar
Ben Lewis – Keyboards
Hans Sturm – Bass
Dane Richeson – Drums, percussion
Jackie Allen has long been a favorite vocalist of mine, with a voice and conception that is completely unique. And, of course, it helps that she’s had a band that’s recorded numerous albums and toured together over the course of a decade and beyond. That gives her projects a cohesion that few others in the jazz world could hope for. With her latest, My Favorite Color, Ms. Allen does not disappoint.
Her core band is a ridiculously talented ensemble that is capable of some downright breathtaking music. John Moulder is on the short list of Chicago’s most incredible and versatile guitarists. Ben Lewis is a monster of a pianist, Hans Sturm is a beast on the bass and the only reason more folks haven’t uttered Dane Richeson’s name probably has something to do with the fact that he calls Madison, Wis., home instead of Chicago. Give that band some time to congeal and set them loose on material that allows them to stretch in some interesting ways, and an album like My Favorite Color is bound to be the result.
If you’ve heard Jackie Allen’s previous records, the opening selection, “A Sleepin’ Bee,” might come as a bit of a shock. This Harold Arlen classic (with words by Truman Capote) is played about as straight as possible, and quite a bit slower than usual. Hans Sturm’s playing is perfect here, and Ben Lewis’ sparse comping and laid back solo are proof that less is sometimes more. In a way, it sets the tone of the album, with special attention paid to atmospherics, vibe and personality—three traits that many jazz musicians are more than willing to jettison in the name of chops or harmonic versatility.
Her version of “My Man’s Gone Now” is a little closer to what you’d expect, given Tangled, Love Is Blue or The Men In My Life. Moody and eerie from the first note is what Allen and her band do best. You definitely know you’re listening to a ballad, but the band still manages to make it groove, bowed bass solo and all. John Moulder is the real star on this track, with the kind of guitar solo on which he’s made his name, merging rock intensity, a singular tone and jazz complexity. Lewis’ concentration on the upbeats gives the song, even at its languid tempo, an undeniable push. When I think of why I come back to Allen’s albums over and over again, it’s arrangements like this—the kinds of performances that you wish were 20 minutes long instead of six.
In that same mode, Jimi Hendrix’s classic, “Manic Depression” gets a treatment that no one else in their right mind would have ever conceived. The original was a loping, crashing and romping explosion of sound, and quite possibly the first attempt at making odd meters rock as hard (if not harder) than their straight 4/4 counterparts. Sure, the meter is still in 3/4, but that and the words are about all that remain from Hendrix’s Are You Experienced? original. The groove gets slowed down to a crawl, and there’s not really a solo to speak of. Instead, Jackie whispers all sorts of craziness into your ears, and trust me when I tell you, the first time you hear this, you will be unnerved. The second time, you’ll smile a little. And from the third listen and beyond, you’ll hear the genius at play here.
Unlike many of her counterparts in the jazz vocalist world, Jackie Allen also does some writing, and here she contributes two compositions to the program. The parallels between these two performances and Joni Mitchell’s Shadows And Light are myriad (I actually went and grabbed Shadows and Light and gave it a listen to see if the analogy held any water—it did). Just as that band brought jazz sophistication to some rather interesting singer-songwriter material, Allen’s band does likewise here. Both “Diana” and “Call Me Winter” are beautifully paced, mid tempo tunes that sound like a modern jazz song should—informed by a world of music beyond jazz that no jazz musician could have possibly escaped even if they had tried.
The only places where Allen and company misstep are in those instances where they don’t live up to their own very high standards. There are a couple of instances on My Favorite Color where certain songs would have likely been nice diversions on many a jazz vocalist’s album. But after being completely blown away by “My Man’s Gone Now” or “Born to be Blue” (which mines some of the same eerie territory that Allen is so very good at), a solidly funky but relatively straight take on a classic rock staple (and/or a Burt Bacharach chestnut) just doesn’t cut it.
To these ears—and these ears get overrun with music every day, month and year, mind you—Jackie Allen makes the kind of albums that every jazz vocalist should be making, if not in tone or timbre, then certainly in spirit. In a fair and just world, it is the albums that take chances and succeed that would sell lots of copies, put butts in seats at clubs and theaters all over the world and make superstars out of their creators. In this world, hopefully this will sell a few copies and give Jackie a reason to bring this band back to Chicago a little more often. If you can’t tell by now, this one’s recommended.
Paul Abella is the music director at 90.9 FM WDCB Public Radio., He may be contacted at wdcb.org.
By: Paul Abella