While it is true that everyone and their mother is doing or has done a “standards” album in recent years, that alone is not necessarily enough to dismiss any new endeavor as a matter of principle. After all, most of what we now consider to be the “American Songbook” is many decades old, and any resurgence should be welcomed. Even lackluster efforts from the likes of Rod Stewart can’t be dismissed entirely—if the early 20th century songbook hadn’t come back into vogue sometime, the songs would have been in real danger of falling out of living memory and into the exclusive but moribund company of madrigals and Gregorian chant. (Blues purists should take note: if Cole Porter can have another day in the sun, so can Robert Johnson!)
Kevyn Lettau’s career does not seem to have followed any rational conception of a conventional trajectory, so a standards album like this makes about as much sense as anything. After moving to the United States from Germany at the age of 14, she sang locally in San Diego until being discovered by none other than Sergo Mendes. Although, like most modern jazz celebrities, Lettau is consistently invisible in America, she is apparently something of a phenomenon in Asia, particularly in Japan and the Philippines, where she enjoys multiple lucrative endorsement contracts. In 2000 she recorded an album devoted solely to jazz interpretations of the music of the Police—yes, those Police.
All of which makes her an intriguingly eclectic presence, to say the least, in the sometimes-static universe of modern jazz. With a voice like hers, it’s impossible to begrudge any eccentricities. Clear and bright and blessedly free of the surplus vibrato that seems to pollute the styles of so many young singers these days, Lettau is an effortless exemplar of an enviously timeless aesthetic.
The album features some truly phenomenal performances on Lettau’s part, abetted by generally unobtrusive arrangements by Dori Caymmi. Lettau truly shines on a pair of minimally-adorned tracks: Porter’s “It’s De-Lovely” supported only by bassist Jerry Watts, Jr. and Duke Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady”, with guitar by Caymmi. Both tracks provide room for Lettau to approach the tracks with an almost a capella bravura, carrying the complex melodies seemingly on the sheer strength of her charisma. “It’s De-Lovely” especially is a singularly powerful reading of such a hoary chestnut.
Album-opener “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” is a slightly unrepresentative track to begin the album, featuring a significantly softer smooth-jazz arrangement than the type found on the bulk of the rest of the album—the string section seems especially out of place. “Bye Bye Blackbird” is better, however, with drummer Mike Shapiro providing a spry, angular Brazilian rhythm that grants a significant propulsion. The bossa theme continues on Ellington’s “Love You Madly” and Porter’s “I Concentrate on You”, both of which feature arrangements that would perhaps not have been out of place on an Astrud Gilberto project.
In addition to the unadorned version of “It’s De-Lovely”, the album’s highlight has to be Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh’s “It Amazes Me”. Starting at almost a whisper, the track building to a heartbreaking, languorous crescendo. Pianist Russell Ferrante deserves special mention for his simple, evocatively off-kilter performance here.
Although not all the material is as compelling as “It Amazes Me” or the Porter selections, the album is buoyed throughout by Lettau’s simply gorgeous talent. In light of Bye-Bye Blackbird, the secret to producing a standards album that stands a good chance of becoming classic itself seems to be simple: get an unforgettable voice, design some tastefully minimal arrangements and let the songs speak for themselves. Despite a couple of missteps, this album is a rare treat.
// Notes from the Road
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