When I discovered that Miki Purnell, the jazz songstress making her album debut with Swingin’ to the Sea, was not merely a singer but a medical doctor as well, before I had even listened to it, I thought I had the perfect sentence to open my review if I didn’t like it. “Don’t quit your day job.” Then I heard the lady sing. And while I think she could have chosen some of her material more wisely, one thing is certain. This is a lady who can sing. If Purnell is half as good with her patients, quitting her day job would be nothing short of criminal. I guess she should simply work them both.
Born in Japan, Dr. Purnell studied classical piano as a child, but it wasn’t until she was in college that she first heard any jazz. As she puts it on her website, “I heard ‘Blue In Green’ by Bill Evans and Miles Davis and it hit me so strong that I could not resist the temptation to sing jazz. I was also deeply impressed by Chet Baker and Ella Fitzgerald. I was inspired not only by their improv but by the stories of their lives.”
Medical school came first, and after graduation, Purnell began her practice first in Hawaii and then in San Diego. But as is often the case, once you get the itch, eventually you have to scratch. She began to study voice, and eventually it was suggested that if the singer was serious about music, she needed to record an album. Purnell was serious. Swingin’ to the Sea makes it clear just how so.
As far as the choice of material is concerned, a singer can go with the tried and true or work with original or lesser-known material. Each has advantages and disadvantages. Singing classics gives you songs that your audience knows and loves while putting you in competition with all the vocalists who worked on the song before you, a competition you may well lose. On the other hand, while unfamiliar material may not engender comparisons; it may well be unfamiliar for a reason. Purnell solves the problem the way many singers do; she does a mix of both. Of the 13 tunes on the album, more than half are well-known pieces, and to these she adds two of her own and two by Dave MacKay, who helps out on piano.
She does a playful version of “Swinging on a Star,” a sappy song made famous by Bing Crosby in the movie Going My Way which paled in comparison with some of the other tracks. Her version of “Estate,” on the other hand, is a smoldering take on the classic. Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage” allows Purnell to show her chops, holding notes and doing a bit of scat singing. It also features some fine solo work from Lori Bell on flute and Kevin Koch on drums. Dizzy Gillespie’s “A Night In Tunisia” begins exotically with Reiko Obata joining her on the koto, but very quickly Purnell starts to swing. It is a dynamic treatment of the classic. Her version of “Bluesette” is equally appealing, especially in her climactic give-and-take with Bell.
“Sexy, Sexy” and “Sunny San Diego Sunday” are the two Purnell originals, and while her vocals are fine, my own preference (with one exception) would have been for better-known material. I would have been much happier to see what she could do with more songs in the vein of ones on here such as “On Green Dolphin Street” and “The Nearness of You.” Joey Carano has a sweet guitar solo on the former.
MacKay’s “Free” and “Like Me,” along with “Moon and Sand” and “The Island” round out Miki Purnell’s excellent debut album.