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Everything Old Is New Again: Reimagined Jazz Standards

Two young musicians, singer Kristin Slipp and pianist Dov Manski, have made an excellent classic recording of startlingly updated jazz standards. Here's how they did it.

Kristin Slipp and Dov Manske

A Thousand Julys

Label: Summyside
US Release Date: 2013-07-16
UK Release Date: 2013-07-16

Getting jaded is the natural province of getting old, of thinking you’ve heard and seen it all before, of believing that whatever is created tomorrow by a bunch of kids has little chance of improving on generations of greatness that came before.

But then something comes along that knocks you out and cheers your heart, that sounds utterly new even while it stands on the shoulders of things you love. And, yeah, it was made by young people you’ve never heard of. And the third time you listen to it, it’s better than the first time. And the fifth time it’s better still.

That’s what happened to me when I heard the brilliant, astonishing new collection of reimagined jazz standards by singer Kristin Slipp and pianist Dov Manski.

A Jaded Critic Gets What He Needs: A Thousand Julys

Dov Manski and Kristin Slipp grew up not far from each other in Maine, and they both wound up at the New England Conservatory at the same time. “Even before college, I had heard about Dov—he was a high school jazz prodigy,” she chuckles. “I knew who he was. When we got to college, a couple of us were from Maine and we felt comfortable together. We were friends even before we started playing together.”

Slipp and Manski started exploring a duo approach to playing jazz, finding that “it was really freeing—there was so much space and so many possibilities,” explains Slipp. It’s hard to imagine that a couple of music students were already working on a project that would create the most daring and intelligent set of jazz standards I have heard in at least 20 years.

But that is exactly the case. Manski and Slipp’s new recording, A Thousand Julys is brilliant and fresh, an utterly original expansion of the tradition that reaches beyond jazz by using the jazz repertoire to express individual emotions.

After listening to these 11 standard tunes a dozen times each, savoring both the emotional directness and the abstraction of the playing, both the clarity and the craft in the singing, I searched for contact information for these incredible young musicians and asked them to grant me a joint interview to tell me how they had made this minor masterpiece.

“The standard repertoire has been done a million times, but we both felt there is so much still to be done,” says Slipp, who adds that there is a particular challenge in “standing out from the pack” as a female jazz singer working with the standard repertoire.

But A Thousand Julys stands far out from the pack as the most thrilling record I’ve heard in 2013.

Playing Beyond Clichés

The solution that Manski and Slipp have developed is not a formula, but it's based around a couple of key ideas. Most clearly, these versions of old warhorses like “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” and “You Go to My Head” are cliché-free. To my ear, Manski’s accompaniment steers clear of the standard harmonizations and morphs into different styles beyond what we normally think of as “jazz”. His “I Get Along Without You Very Well” has a “hurdy-gurdy” quality, for example, while his “You Go to My Head” combines a Herbie Hancock left-hand bassline with bi-tonal dissonance in the upper register of the right hand.

“On that tune,” Manski explains, “I wanted to outline the basic structure of the chords in the left hand, using sixths and tenths from stride piano, and then go against he harmonic grain with these bitonal intervals with the right hand. That was the idea, but I didn’t write out specific chords or voicings although this was clearly influenced by classical music. Charles Ives has been a big influence on me.”

The instrumental arrangements, then, don’t run away from tradition as much as they pursue Manski’s interests beyond more traditional jazz. “I wasn’t avoiding anything consciously,” says Manski, “but in this duo it is always okay to play the way I play. I never stray purposely from playing, say, a II-V-I harmony—but the guide is just that I’m only going to play what feels true to myself.”

This freedom, of course, comes from hard work. Both Manski and Slipp are true students of the music. “I do research to understand the song and how it has been played before,” explains Manski. “I study how singers have sung it, how orchestras have played it, the history of the song. From doing the research, I gain the confidence to let go and play naturally.”

Kristin agreed. “We have both absorbed very different versions of the song and have let them marinate. We use that as a guide. And then let it go completely. It’s not a big labored process.”

“Of course,” Manski adds “I listen to Kristin and how she sings each song.”

Singing Both Inside and Outside the Jazz Tradition

Slipp’s singing can be deceptively simple when you first hear it. She often starts her renditions of songs in an unadorned manner, not only avoiding unnecessary melodic embellishments but also singing with a tone and timbre that is notably plain or even “spoken”, with limited vibrato and a sensibility that comes from rock or folk singing.

For example, she starts “You Go to My Head” this way, sneaking in some sweet but subtle glissandi. On the second “A” section, however, she plays with the melody more, crafting a beautiful chromatic down-figure on “I find the very mention of you”, which is capped with a quiet vibrato. The bridge brings a big contrast, however, with a series of deliberately flat notes and then a sharpened timbre when she sings “thrill casts a spell over me”. She uses a more theatrically present tone on “I say to myself, get a hold of yourself” so that by the end of the phrase “don’t you see that it never can beeee” she lets her voice crack—and then pulls back from the crack to a clean tone from which “be” becomes the “you” of the song’s title without any break in the sound.

Which is to say: for singing that starts with folk simplicity, this is a virtuoso performance, but one that uses a non-jazz sensibility as one of many ingredients.

“I have a palette of sounds, just as Dov does with this playing and his choice of instruments. When he sets up a vibe, I have to figure out how my singing is going to reflect that. I reach into my paint box. One of my goals as a musician is to be as versatile as I can be. I covet versatility. I try to understand the feeling of a song and convey that in the way that I sing. Sometimes it calls for starkness, and I try to do that. Sometimes a more operatic approach is required. I have some awareness of this as I’m doing it.”

I asked Slipp specifically about one of my favorite moments on the record, when she alters the title line of “The Way You Look Tonight” so that it comes out as “the way THAT you look tonight”. She gives the melody a different rhythmic sensibility throughout, purposely not swinging it and making us hear the words (which she notes can “often sound dated”) anew. “Yes,” she says, “there was a time when that kind of stuff was intentional. I didn’t plan it, but with what Dov was doing, it just came out that way. We’re at a point in our duo where I want to sing any song in a ‘natural’ way—just the way it comes out of me.”

Wurlitzer as Well as Acoustic Piano

One of the most striking things about A Thousand Julys is the decision to have Manski play the Wurlitzer electric piano on about half the tracks. This is not an example of the duo putting a more “pop” or “soul” gloss on these songs, however.

“There is no lack of validity in updating standards in that way,” says Slipp. “But we were coming from particular places. We were not trying to make these things sound like pop or soul. Without being conscious of it, we were not steering toward that.”

Instead, Manski approaches his Wurlitzer playing with a particular formality, in fact. On these songs, his playing is very deliberate. He often “solos” on these tunes by playing a variation of the melody in the bass line while playing right-hand chords with little syncopation.

“The stuff on piano is from an earlier session,” Slipp explains. “We were using only piano for a while, but Dov and I both have Wurlitzers in our apartments and we were using them for rehearsals. It’s a beautiful instrument on its own and we starting bringing it to gigs. It was a timbre we both gravitated toward.”

The album opens on a version of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” that grabs you by the heart and won’t let go. The Wurly bass figure has a spare majesty that leaves Slipp seeming largely naked on top of it. Manski plays more lightly on the bridge, lifting his singer up to more lightness, then he comes back down at the end with no flash or fancy footwork. And it’s a setting that allows Slipp to sing with such directness that you hear these well-known lyrics for the first time. At least I did.

A New Kind of (Jazz) Recording

Listening to A Thousand Julys gave me a continual sense that—finally—I was listening to a jazz record that might truly appeal to a non-jazz audience in a fresh way. Without being calculated or hiply “indie”, this music seems to jump effortlessly from one style to another, from one age to another. It may contain a hip downtown eclecticism on the one hand, but listening to the gorgeous “For Heaven’s Sake” suggests that a Broadway fan would love this music just as much.

“We would love this record to transcend a jazz audience,” says Slipp. “I think for both of us this is a project where we feel we are at our most authentic.” Slipp also plays with the indie-avant band Cuddle Magic, where she is beyond category in a whole other way, “My other band plays its part in how this music sounds. I’m always checking out pop and indie-rock and folk music.”

Manski too, like every musician from his and Slipp’s generation, works outside of jazz all the time. “I’m playing with rock and pop bands, playing contemporary gospel music with a dance company. We both check out all kinds of music. It’s not about the genre of music, it’s the quality of the music. There are a few underlying things that I take away from other genres that I try to play and try to incorporate. I don’t worry about what will fit into a specific genre’s language but what will sound good.”

Kristin jumps in with agreement. “What Dov said is spot on. We are always performing and listening. We have to figure out our voice in these different contexts. When we come together it’s the same—what’s our voice for these songs? What are the best things we have to offer in this context?

“We both appreciate the core essence of a song,” Slipp says. “Simplicity.”

A Record That Had to Get Made

And yet A Thousand Julys is no simple matter, even if it gets to essence. Imagine a Keith Jarrett recording of standards with a singer. Try to dream up a collection of classical art songs... but with the charm of Cole Porter and sung by a witty and tongue-in-cheek Meredith D’Ambrosio. Or, better yet, think about getting your hands on a “jazz” record with an indie-classical sensibility that sounds unplanned and guileless—and sounds like it might be considered a classic in 30 years.

Speaking to Kristin Slipp and Dov Manski about this great record was disarming because they seem slightly unprepared for the reception I think it should receive. How did they get it placed with Sunnyside Records? I ask them.

“We have a lot of music and had been sititng on it,” explains Slipp. “A friend suggested we send it out to labels—and I sent out about 20 homemade packages with handwritten notes to different labels. We were turned down just about everywhere with a few kind responses, but then it turned out that Francios Zalacain of Sunnyside was interested. He champions vocalists and likes new music—and he contacted me.”

But whether A Thousand Julys makes them famous or not (and it should), Kristin Slipp and Dov Manski wouldn’t and couldn’t be doing anything else. “Some people are happy having a job and playing music at night and on weekends,” Slipp says. “I would be miserable doing some office job. We are musicians—who would hire us for anything else?” she laughs. “We have to be playing music to live. It’s not a question.”

Dov agrees. “It’s not easy, and it varies, but personally I can’t think of anything else I would want to do. It’s not something I even think about. I play music. That’s just the way it is. It’s something that I need for my life.”

This record justifies all the sacrifice. It’s a beauty. It’s brand new. It sounds like yesterday colliding with tomorrow—the essence of jazz, the essence of song.

Give up your cynicism and don’t be jaded—A Thousand Julys is a gem. Miss it at your peril.

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