At 83 years old, Peter Appleyard is still an active jazz vibraphonist and he sounds great on his latest release, Sophisticated Ladies. The title is not just a reference to Duke Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady,” but also to the ten songstresses that appear on the album (a different one for each track). It’s a testament to the jazz talent residing in Canada that all of these ladies hail from the Great White North (as does Appleyard himself). This collection of standards is pleasing to the ear, with the revolving door of vocalists providing considerable variety.
“After You’ve Gone” starts out as a soothing ballad sung by Emilie-Claire Barlow, quickly shifting into uptempo mode for Appleyard’s deft solo. It never looks back, with Barlow displaying expert timing as the band starts and stops on a dime throughout the song’s middle section. Heck, this could’ve been a rousing closer, but we’re just getting started. Elizabeth Shepherd tickles the old chestnut “It’s Only a Paper Moon” with a playful vocal before things get even more interesting on the following track. “Love for Sale” is a standout track funked up with a heavy, rhythmic groove as Jill Barber dances over the top of it with a seductive lead.
There’s something to recommend on every track here, but other highlights include Molly Johnson’s smoky take on what is more or less the title track, Ellington’s aforementioned all-time gem “Sophisticated Lady.” Though most of these tracks clock in and five minutes or less, “Georgia on My Mind” is allowed a little more leeway. Only after a full chorus-length solo by Appleyard does Jackie Richardson enter with her deep, controlled, and deeply felt vocal. “Night and Day” is enlivened with a little extra color, courtesy of Carol Welsman’s piano. Welsman also contributes breezy, relaxed singing.
In addition to Appleyard’s vibes, the band includes John Sherwood (piano), Reg Schwager (guitar), Neil Swainson (bass), and Terry Clarke (drums). The musicianship is tasteful and unobtrusive; Appleyard and his ladies are in charge here. That said, the album-closing “Smile” features Schwager’s acoustic guitar prominently in the album’s most subtle arrangement. Diana Panton caresses the melody in the most gentle of ways, resulting in the perfect way to end this mini-musical tour of Canada’s premiere jazz vocalists.