Jackie Allen: The Men in My Life

[7 March 2004]

By Marshall Bowden

Let’s get this out of the way right off the bat: Jackie Allen‘s voice, her singing on this CD, is incredibly, audibly sexy. S-e-x-y. That’s not to say that her phrasing isn’t great, her intonation right on, or that she doesn’t swing or that her reading of the lyrics isn’t deep and insightful. Jackie accomplishes all of those things. But she does them all so effortlessly, seemingly without breaking a sweat, that her formidable vocal technique is never out front calling attention to itself. In short, Allen is that rare singer who has full command of her vocal instrument and understands her material to the point where she can forget all of that and communicate to her listeners the heart of each song she sings. And her voice has a balmy charm that caresses the listener’s ear, drawing you in like a warm fire on a cold winter’s night.

On The Men in My Life, Allen pays tribute to a number of male composers and performers who have influenced her or whose work she particularly admires. This select group includes Paul Simon, Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn, Frank Sinatra, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Chick Corea, Al Jarreau, Burt Bacharach, Herb Alpert, Fred Astaire, Mark Murphy, James Taylor, Sting, Ray Charles, and Billy Eckstine. The result is a gorgeous album that both jazz vocal fans and those who simply love good vocalists and don’t give a hoot about jazz can enjoy.

This is a candlelight dinner romantic CD with a capital “R” thanks to the selection of material, Allen’s voice, and her tendency, on some tracks, to pursue a decidedly slower tempo than that of the performer to whom she is paying tribute. For example, her “Come Fly with Me” is a masterful reworking of a song that has come to be associated immediately in most people’s minds with Frank Sinatra. Instead of the swinging “I’m the man” strut of Frank’s version, we get a soft, ever-so-slow samba on which Allen’s voice oozes romance and (here it is again) sex. Her phrasing is perfect as she injects a knowing wink into lines like “In llama land / There’s a one man band / And he’ll toot his flute for you” or “Just say the word / And we’ll beat the birds / Down to Acapulco bay”. It’s a reading of a classic song that stands up next to its best-known version, and when that version is Sinatra’s that is a real accomplishment in anyone’s book. Allen also slows down Burt Bacharach’s “This Guy (Girl)‘s in Love with You”, investing it with so much longing, so much craving, that you wonder how it is that she doesn’t simply implode. It’s a real stunner of a performance that will have you reaching for the replay button.

Not that everything is downtempo in Jackie’s world. She tackles Al Jarreau’s lyrical melding of the Chick Corea classic “Spain” with an intro that employs Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez and sounds effortless dealing the words at a premium tempo. Her original, lyrically clever tribute to Fred Astaire, “You Could Be Fred”, swings with the best of them. But the ballads do rule, and Allen makes the most of them. Only on the opener, a version of Paul Simon’s “Still Crazy” does she stumble at all—the version is good until the last verse when she seems to make a modulation that doesn’t quite provide the boost the listener expects. But she is otherwise very much in sync with her more pop-oriented inspirations, giving James Taylor’s “Mexico” an off-kilter reading that provides depth that one didn’t know was there and pushing Sting’s “Tea in the Sahara” into realms that he seemingly couldn’t have pulled off himself. On “The Bad and the Beautiful” she duets beautifully with fellow Chicagoan Kurt Elling. Allen may not be as well known as Elling and Chicago’s other current jazz phenom, Patricia Barber, but if she continues to provide performances like those found on The Men in My Life, she soon will be.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/allenjackie-men/