Judy Wexler has swing, no question about it. Born and raised in L.A., she studied piano at age 5. Wexler gravitated more towards theatre and acting as she got older and started off in high school productions. In a twist, she majored in psychology at UC Santa Cruz and planned to become a therapist. Eventually, however, Wexler “came back down to earth” and switched her major to theatre after a few years. Still, her education in psychology has been helpful in terms of breaking down her work in theatre and in music.
This background makes Wexler one hell of a storyteller and her latest album, Dreams & Shadows, is full of stories and tales. Her previous album, 2005’s Easy on the Heart, was well-received and introduced listeners to her ability to use the freedom of jazz to tell such great stories. Wexler’s Dreams & Shadows expands on that freedom and gives the listener something different with each well-dressed track.
First things first, though: her band is marvelous. Popping the cork on a bottle of wine and settling into this one as I have, the gentle grooves and taut backing of Wexler’s band is something special. The album’s opener, “Comes Love,” comes alive with silky backing from the band. Wexler’s stretching of certain notes smolders and the song is alluring. With one or two simple notes, I’m intrigued. Judy Wexler can throw down.
The title track, “Dreams & Shadows (Delilah),” is up next. Beginning with the delectable, dark bass tones of Darek Oles and the accompanying piano, Wexler takes this tune in a delightful direction. “In Love In Vain” is a spunky little track with compelling lyrics delivered with unique rhythm and humour. “Photograph” is smoky jazz led by Stefanie Fife’s cello and the tender sway of the band.
“Spooky” is actually a rather silly rock song, but it works because Wexler is able to transform the piece with her swing and her swagger. It’s a highlight track. Following that, “If I Only Had a Brain” is a dazzling take on the classic Harold Arlen track from Oz. The Elvis Costello tune “Almost Blue” is one of the more sentimental tracks on the album and the opening piano is beautiful and eloquent.
“Bye Bye Country Boy” swings into place next as a song about regret. The Sonny Rollins tune “Pent Up House” is a full-on blast of gorgeous jazz and Burt Bacharach’s “One Less Bell to Answer” slows things down again. Wexler takes on the bluesy “Don’t Be On the Outside,” originally recorded by Sarah Vaughan in the 50s, with style. “Summer Is Gone,” by Blossom Dearie, and “Life’s a Lesson” nicely close out the album.
Judy Wexler can throw down, that much is clear.
But what’s more, she has that certain indefinable notion for timing and an uncanny ability to tell stories with natural swagger and swing. Swing is often lost in music because it can’t be taught. It’s an attitude. Yet here is Judy Wexler and she simply has it. For her, the swagger comes naturally and the breathy swing is simply instinctual. Something tells me that she couldn’t turn it off if she tried. Dreams & Shadows is a great place to start getting to know this wonderful jazz vocalist.