Ordinarily the last place I would have imagined a singer would look to fill an album would have been the Dave Brubeck songbook. A pianist, sure. A saxophonist? Absolutely. Pick an instrument, Brubeck’s canon would be fertile ground. But a singer? Who even knew there were lyrics to sing?
Then along comes a jazz singer from Atlanta by way of Portland Karla Harris and her latest album, Sings the Dave and Iola Brubeck Songbook and it becomes abundantly clear that you never know what you don’t know. Turns out not only are there lyrics, but put those lyrics in the hands of a talented vocalist and an imaginative arranger, they are lyrics with some real power. Harris has old school vocal chops, and pianist Ted Howe’s arrangements make sure she has the perfect canvas to use them.
The set opens with “Take Five.” Brubeck and his wife’s lyrics for the Paul Desmond classic may never replace the iconic instrumental version, but what could? Besides, there is something intensely vital about Harris’s work with the tune. An inventive arrangement of “The Duke” with lyrics by Isola that pay tribute to the tune’s subject follows.
“Easy as You Go” is a torch gem that seems to end too quickly for my money. “Far More Blue” gets a Latin treatment with some highlights from Bob Sheppard on the alto sax and some scatting from Harris. Indeed there is terrific work from her entire accompanying ensemble—Howe on piano, Tom Kennedy on bass, and Dave Weckl on drums. Sheppard only plays on three of the tracks. Appropriately he’s on “Take Five” and he shows up again later on “Summer Song.”
“In Your Own Sweet Way” is a haunting ballad, and Harris plays some vocal games channeling a Barbara Streisand vocal tic with “There’ll Be No Tomorrow.” “My One Bad Habit,” which credits the great Ella Fitzgerald as well as the Brubecks for the lyric, is an old swinger treated with style. A lovely version of “Strange Meadowlark,” “Weep No More,” and “Trav’lin Blues” round out the set.
Karla Harris does the Dave and Iola Brubeck songbook proud.
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