NNot all smooth jazz is Smooth Jazz, if you know what I mean. Image in the Mirror is undeniably smooth, but rich in improvisational and jazz sensibilities. Even so, its lack of anything remotely like a rough edge is likely to see it placed in those “Dinner Jazz” slots much favoured by station programmers. It deserves better but as long as it gets played somewhere I shall be happy. Jeri Brown is an accomplished singer, an expert in a difficult art, with stylishness and sophistication to spare. This lends to the record a definite feel of days gone by, evoking a lost world of Avedon photographs, Dry Martinis and penthouse suites. Urbane and candle-lit, its roots are in a pre-rock, pre-rap landscape where Ella and Sarah still rule the roost and you can understand every word of every song. How it will fare in these coarsened times is anyone’s guess.
Despite its echoes, this is no exercise in nostalgia nor a slavish copy of an older idiom. The actual set consists of original material, thematically organised and with a distinct seriousness of purpose. The Triptych proclaims itself “a fictional dramatic piece” and comes complete with three separate Acts, plus Prologue and Epilogue. These form a series of meditations on the stages of a love affair with an underlying concern with identity and loneliness. I am not sure how successful this concept is or whether it is just a rather high-brow (Brown has an academic career as well as a singing one) way of packaging a random collection of love songs. The narrative structure makes more sense with each hearing, so I am inclined to give the artist the benefit of any doubts.
That material hovers between jazz song proper and a superior Broadway Show style—Sondheim rather than Lloyd Webber. The greater the distance from the Musical that the songs manage, the easier I am with them. Since the arrangements are all from the jazzier end of the spectrum it is only occasionally a real problem. The lyrics are intelligent and are provided by a number of writers—significantly mostly female. The music, erudite and relaxed, is by pianist Milton Sealey, a key factor in the project’s success. Overall, the content is solid with the melodic possibilities foregrounded. Each player makes the most of this platform.
These performances are singularly impressive and hard to over-praise. Brown has gathered together the ideal band for her purposes. Bassist Avery Sharpe is a revelation—sympathetic when in the background but equally at home sharing the spotlight with the singer. He adds panache to the more mundane moments and keeps everything in the right groove. Drummer Grady Tate is also excellent, though more content to maintain a supporting role—perhaps waiting for the two chances he gets to sing. His mastery of the dying art of the brushes is a real delight. Sealey is an even better pianist than composer, bringing a wealth of craftsmanship to his task. He never hogs centre stage but his presence is always an asset. Together they form the perfect night-club trio—aware of their prime function as accompaniment to the singer, yet adding colour and texture as required.
Brown herself is a jazz vocalist from the very top drawer. The four octave range and the classical training are apparent but of less importance than the purity of tone and the ability to draw the utmost from each song. Technically adept, she has an unruffled yet emotionally rich delivery that stands comparison with the classic names but is very much her own. The scatting, for which she is famous, is held reasonably in check and she seems markedly superior to the mannered Cleo Laine to whom she has been compared.
Of the various sections, Act Two is the most consistent and in ” Who’s Been Loving You?” contains the album’s finest song. Slightly more soulful than the other tracks and from the lower end of Brown’s considerable register, it is a remarkable combination of poise and barely restrained anger. The slow, intricate structures of “My Fragile Heart” would have defeated a lesser singer but are handled with great skill while the catchy “I’ll Remember Love”, with its minimalist instrumentation (just bass and finger-snaps), allows her full range to run free without descending into mere trickery. From the first section I would pick the more modal “All at Once”, with its balanced delivery and gentle funkiness, over the vocalese of “My Window”, although the latter will appeal to scat lovers. The final section is dominated by two duets with Tate. His singing is a little too syrupy for my tastes and, although everything is as exquisitely executed as elsewhere, the results here are a little cloying . The more modernistic Epilogue piece “The Dragonfly and the Pearl” finds everyone on safer, somewhat starker territory, with Sealey in especially good touch.
This is Brown’s eighth album and a change from both the rendition of standards or slightly more experimental work on which her reputation is based. If there is a more gifted singer in this field at the present time, I would like to hear her or him. Once one has got used to the conventions within which this release operates, it is a warm and deeply satisfying experience. A final bonus is an after-hours blues by Sealey which, sadly, serves as his epitaph, since he died not long after this recording was made. Milton Sealey was one of a number of important musicians from the area of Montreal known as “Little Burgundy”—Oscar Peterson being the most famous. On this evidence, he is due some recognition. As Brown has made her home in Canada, it is to be hoped that this disc will not only raise her profile but that of the enormous contribution the country has made to jazz.
Justin Time are gathering a formidable roster of artists and the Missouri-born singer is one of their finest. If the future of this subtle genre is to match its past, it will be albums like this that will have shown the way. Even if that seems unlikely, at least the tradition is in very capable hands. If your record collection is a little lacking in elegance then Image in the Mirror might just be the answer.
// Notes from the Road
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