Fay Victor 2024
Photo: Deneka Peniston / Fully Altered Media

Fay Victor Puts Jazz Pianist Herbie Nichols in Today’s Vanguard

This is Fay Victor’s best recording to date because it looks at a past great composer and reimagines that tradition as part of jazz music’s daring vanguard.

Life Is Funny That Way
Fay Victor
Tao Forms
5 April 2024

Like every powerful jazz artist, the vocalist and composer Fay Victor had to learn the music, work out on standards, and develop her craft. Particularly for women who built their art in the shadow of Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Abbey Lincoln, and Betty Carter, jazz singing can be a trap — it would seem to provide fewer ways to break new ground. But Victor has been an exceptional example of originality, becoming a strong composer and voice improviser who has mastered a vocal approach to the “avant-garde” vocabulary that never sacrifices tonal richness and a grounding in blues. She is an up-to-the-second contemporary jazz singer whose escape from the shadows of her influences is a victory of originality that still reflects tradition.

Her new recording is undoubtedly the most astonishing of her career, particularly if you want to understand how a tradition can be simultaneously embraced and used as a launching pad for pure escape velocity. Victor fell in love when she first heard the music of pianist Herbie Nichols. But finding the chops and imagination to sing it was a long time coming. Life Is Funny That Way is the first complete recording project of her decade-old “Herbie Nichols SUNG” band, and it is a double-length release for the ages.

Nichols was a distinctive jazz pianist from New York who was active in the 1950s, making four piano trio albums for Blue Note and Bethlehem. For many, he is known primarily for writing the music for the Billie Holiday song “Lady Sings the Blues”, but aficionados — including pianist Mary Lou Williams, saxophonist Steve Lacy, trombonist Rosewall Rudd, and pianist Misha Mengleberg — have long realized that he was a distinctive composer and recorded his material. More recently, the bassist Ben Allison has championed Nichols in several formats.

Life Is Funny That Way is not merely the latest reclamation recording featuring these wonderful songs, but it brings Victor’s original lyrics to the music. She and her band conjure these songs with exceptional warmth. The rhythm section of bassist Ratzo Harris, drummer Tom Rainey, and pianist Anthony Coleman are perfectly capable of lifting the tunes with the nimble and galloping swing that Nichols’ trios possessed. Just dig the opening track “Life Is Funny That Way” (Nichols’s “Double Exposure”) or the scatted “Shuffle Montgomery” to hear the joyful swing of the trio or the game and pungent saxophone solos of Michael Attias (on alto and baritone).

“Tonight” (from “House Party Starting”) could be the album’s single — it swings with easy relaxation but is not a little ditty, even if the lyrics are fun and party-rich. Attias is gauzy and warm as he weaves his baritone around the blues-rich singing on the head, and Coleman makes the case for how deliciously Nichols could evoke his real-life friend Thelonious Monk. The musicians take a traditional set of solos, beginning with Victor, who scats with a rare melodic assurance — her invented syllables slide around with harmonies of the song as surely as if she were Lester Young or Sonny Rollins. Let’s be honest: other than Ella Fitzgerald, how many jazz singers are well-advised to scat? Victor is a member of that tiny sorority.

As often as this band swings, however, it acts as an exploratory partner to the leader. Victor is at her most distinctive when she deconstructs Nichols’s music so that it sounds comfortably beyond his 1950s style. “Bright Butterfly” (based on “Another Friend”) is taken mostly in free time, with Harris’s arco bass acting as another exploratory melodic voice in a duet with Attias’s alto. Victor programs this track so that it flows right into the introduction to “Sinners, All of Us” (based on “The Happenings”), also taken without a set tempo by the piano trio. Eventually, this performance develops a mid-tempo thump — a martial swing, if you will — that slides right into the blues. Victor sings in a keening unison with the saxophone, outlining a story of a huckster/preacher arriving from out of town to find an atmosphere ripe with trouble. She has the melody gripped by the neck, singing it with rich gusto.

Victor reportedly felt that she needed time and considerable practice to feel comfortable taking on Nichols’s songs, which are far from conventional. But it is plain that she owns this material. Her adaptation of Nichols’ relatively well-known “23 Skidoo” is exemplary. The original is a bluesy riff tune that bops along with off-kilter joy. Victor’s introduction slows the theme to a free flow above Coleman’s harmonically daring piano. Her singing is exposed in the extreme, with the spare piano offering harmonic suggestion and sparring rather than support, and she is rock solid while taking off on tonal and melodic tangents at will. The rest of the band enters, and the ensemble improvises quite freely, abstracting the song to the point of it being a new, spontaneously composed composition. As a singer in a “free” context, Victor never sounds like she is following her bold musicians. She is simply one of them but utterly in command. And, perhaps best of all, as a coda, the ensemble swings “The Culprit Is You” for one quick chorus, demonstrating its connection to the original. Touche, you got us, Fay.

Of course, Victor and the band cover “Lady Sings the Blues” with Holiday’s original lyrics, but this is no mere cover. Coleman sketches the first phrase of the melody in a solo piano introduction, and when Victor enters with the same line, her approach is cool, clean, and pure. Harris and Rainey shiver just beneath her, and then eventually, the baritone saxophone arrives, too, but this performance never moves into swing. Victor keeps the song honest to its lyrics — an art song that exposes the narrator to our ears without any sassy attitude hiding the pain.

Similarly, “Descent Into Madness” (adapted from “The Spinning Song”) keeps the band quiet, tiptoeing and fluttering around the edges of Victor’s exceptionally controlled vocal. She is the rare singer who blends into the textures of her bands, fusing with them tonally without sacrificing the clarity of her lyrics. Despite the title and lyrics, the band stays gorgeous and measured as it moves along with Victor’s narrative, Attias sometimes becoming the vocal’s doppelganger. This is a haunting performance.

There are other wonders to be found on Life Is Funny That Way, including a trio-only version of Nichols’ “Twelve Bars” that is wide open. In so many ways, these 72 minutes of music might be thought of as a suite, with a spine of melodic sensibility (that of Herbie Nichols) providing a sharp 21st-century band with a way of summarizing the state of the art today. Fay Victor is the rare singer who can demonstrate and interact with the deep vocal tradition while also delving into the daring freedoms that have long been the province of instrumentalists to explore. She does all of this while telling stories with her lyrics as well. To top it off, her vocal tone and control have never sounded better.

This is Fay Victor’s best recording to date, not because it encounters “the tradition” but because it looks at a great composer from the past and reimagines the tradition as part of the music’s daring vanguard.

RATING 9 / 10