Stacey Kent: The Changing Lights

The American singer learns Portuguese and does a full disc of bossa nova music.
Stacey Kent
The Changing Lights
Warner Bros.

Stacey Kent is a singer treasured by plenty of fans, and it’s easy to understand why. Her voice has an under-the-glass cleanness or even perfection to it. She is a delicate singer, the kind who enunciates perfectly and sings jazz that eases over into the kind of thing that is called “cabaret” in New York: a certain studied, old-fashioned vocal art that takes skill and theatricality.

Kent is a fussy singer, I would say. She generally records with arrangements by her husband, reedman Jim Tomlinson, and every note on the record — and every little intonation and twist in her vocals — is in place, planned with care. It’s pretty stuff. It’s delicately, buzzingly cute sometimes.

Though Kent was born in New Jersey and graduated from Sarah Lawrence College, her base has been in Europe. She met Tomlinson while studying in England, and she got her start as a singer at Ronnie Scott’s. Her persona has had a European tinge: she has won lots of BBC jazz awards and sings songs with lyrics by British writer Kazua Ishiguro. She won a 2009 National Order of Arts and Letters from France — she sings fluently in French.

Her new recording is nearly all bossa nova material, some classic (“One Note Samba”, “Corcovado”, “How Insensitive”) and some quite new. And, if you know her material, the response is: of course. This delicate, precise voice seems about perfect for the style. Plus, Kent recently made intensive study of Portuguese at Middlebury College. It all fits together.

And if you want to knock Kent, or this new album, then that would be the critique: it all fits together with such precision and cleanness. Her voice is just so clean and so classic. Every arrangement is . . . just soooooooo.

I guess you either love that kind of thing or it worries you just a little. Me, I can’t decide.

In the past, I’ve found Kent’s voice a skosh too refined and precious to give me much feeling, as if Blossom Dearie lost her hip cuteness and, you know, studied a bunch at Sarah Lawrence to get her jazziness just right. Every quaver, every bit of breathiness, every syllable held out into a shudder of vibrato felt like a calculation, and a madly tasteful one. The chance that Kent would surprise me: zero. Hey, she uses the exact same font for her name on all her album covers. And look at the cover of this new disc, The Changing Lights. She’s wearing a cape while glancing at the camera, all the lights of the city out of focus behind her. It’s, like, too perfect and stylish.

But this recording makes all that neatness a little cooler. For example, I didn’t know the Jobim tune “This Happy Madness” before, but here it is, beginning as a duet for Kent and her pianist on the first chorus and then picking up those little clicks that bossa drummers put on the edge of the snare drum as Kent dances across the second chorus. And as that rhythm takes over, she actually loosens up, she drags the lyrics a few times, swings it all, gets a bit more rubbery with her sound. Nice. The tunes you know come off well too. “One Note Samba” gets some extra measures that add little pauses, little surprises, and Kent keeps things simple the way they should be in bossa singing: not too much theater, please. “How Insensitive” is kept beautifully simple too, with just bass, acoustic guitar, and piano on the first chorus, then the lightest persuasion entering behind the improvisations.

Tomlinson’s arrangements aren’t all that original, but he uses his flute work here as a key and delicate element in several cuts. Fender Rhodes electric piano spices things up in a few places. There’s a dose of guitar (acoustic for hip strumming, electric too) and a decent dose of Getz-ian tenor solos that make you think of those early ’60s bossa records that set the template for this stuff. The lines he has written for his tenor and the piano to play in unison behind Kent’s vocal on “How Insensitive” are perfection.

There are three songs here with lyrics by the great novelist Kazuo Ishiguro (The Remains of the Day, Never Let Me Go — a novel with a great song at its center). Kent has recorded his lyrics before, but “The Changing Lights” is the best of all of them, a story told in three anecdotes separated by years: the narrator speaking to a special friend with whom she has great hopes that are only partly fulfilled. It is a truly great song. Another beauty that Kent brings to life here is “Like a Lover”, by the Bergmans and Nelson Motta with music by Marcos Valle. These are smart, literate love songs.

Is this collection still too neat and clean in places? Sure, there isn’t one hair out of place, and some of the studio fades on these tunes seem like ’60s AM radio. But the sway and cool of the groove and the excellence of the lyrics combine with Kent’s essentially vintage sound in a way that makes it all okay. The truth is, she was made to sing this style.

Now, I don’t necessarily fancy making these reviews personal, but when I reviewed Kent’s 2007 Blue Note debut, Breakfast on the Morning Tram, my favorite tune was the collection’s bossa nova. I wrote: “[T]he subtle polyrhythms of Brazilian music give her a touch of edge within the context of her very polite aesthetic. More bossas, Stacey! (Next time in Portuguese.)”

Stacey Kent, you have delivered. I, for one, can’t complain.

RATING 7 / 10