In Susan Stamberg’s introduction to a 2012 interview with jazz vocalist Judy Wexler about her second album Dreams & Shadows, she says Wexler can sing anything. “Wexler can be slow and sad without being goopy. She can straight-out swing, and she can take a classic jazz riff and keep riffing, even with words.” Now the singer is out with album number four, What I See, and Stamberg’s introduction still fits.
There is a lot of evidence of “gooplyless” balladry and plenty of straight out swinging, and there is a bit of classic jazz riffing as well. Wexler does pretty much everything you want from a top jazz singer, and she does it with an admirable restraint. She rarely flies too high, never even getting close to the sun. There are the singers who like to indulge in pyrotechnics; there are those who favor a controlled aesthetic. Judy Wexler is all about control.
There are 11 songs on her new album, most of them lesser-known tunes or what the liner notes call “a treasure trove of overlooked songs.” This is neither the usual collection of pop or jazz standards, nor an ego-stroking selection of the artist’s original compositions. There may be a standard or two, but by and large these are songs likely to be unfamiliar to the modern audience, and there isn’t one of the 11 that bears the singer’s name.
So if you are looking for the familiarity of tried and true material, you are in the wrong place. If you’re up for something of an adventurous program exploring what may be new territory, this is an album you are going to want to hear. The one standard on the album everyone probably knows is “A Kiss to Build a Dream On,” a tune made famous by Louis Armstrong, here delivered as a kind of sweet tribute to the master. Then of course she ends the album with her take on the not quite as well-known Billie Holiday number, “Laughing at Life.” She even adds a little scat to her interpretation.
Her version of “Follow,” a Jerry Merrick song best known probably as a recorded by Richie Havens, brings out its latent jazz potential. It is one of the highlights of the album, as is the swinging opening number, King Pleasure’s “Tomorrow Is Another Day.” She gives the tune a swinging traditional reading that gives it new life. The solo from the bass clarinet of Bob Sheppard works like a charm.
She turns seductress in the ballad “Convince Me” and there is a real story behind her version of “A Certain Sadness.” Benny Carter’s “Another Time, Another Place” gets a true jazz treatment and pianist, producer, arranger Jeff Colella adds some atmospheric work on the piano. Indeed, the support from the entire ensemble of musicians—Larry Koonse (guitar, ukulele), Scott Whitfield (trombone), Ron Stout (trumpet, flugelhorn), Chris Colangelo (bass) and Steve Hass (percussion)—is top of the line.
What I See is the work of singer who knows what she wants to do with a song and makes sure she does it.