Ethel Ennis, Baltimore's great, if frequently overlooked, jazz vocalist, has never been one to dismiss the world of pop and rock. Unlike many veteran jazz artists, she has kept her options open, willing to present contemporary songs in a distinctly personal light.
The benefits of this strategy are particularly apparent on her latest release, "If Women Ruled the World" (Savoy/Denon). Here we find Ennis and pianist-arranger Marc Copland interpreting, and often imaginatively recasting, the work of 10 female songwriters, ranging from Billie Holiday ("God Bless the Child") and Ann Ronell ("Willow Weep for Me") to Joni Mitchell ("For Free") and Joan Osborne ("Spider Web"). Joan Armatrading is represented by two songs (including the thematic title track), and the album closes with Ennis's own inspirational anthem "Hey You."
Challenging each other in now subtle, now striking ways, Ennis and Copland demonstrate a special rapport that seems to stem from their shared understanding that sometimes it's neither the singer nor the song that's crucial to the success of a performance; it's the setting.
The result is a series of alternately subdued and spirited arrangements that elegantly compensate for those moments when the lyrics, in the hands of a less gifted singer, might seem awfully trite (Des'ree's "You Gotta Be") or when the tunes, played by a less resourceful pianist, might seem utterly bereft of harmonic motion or interest (Mitchell's "For Free").
Not that Ennis and Copland deserve all the credit for the music's considerable allure and charm. The album's splendid cast includes guitarists John Abercrombie and Gene Bertoncini, bassists Drew Gress and Ron McClure, drummers Billy Hart and Dennis Chambers, saxophonist Jane Ira Bloom and trumpeter Ingrid Jensen. As soloists and ensemble players, they enhance Copland's impressionistic designs and flowing lyricism while complementing Ennis's consistently wise and soulful interpretations.
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8151.)
Sunny Sumter: 'Sunny'
Sunny Sumter, an emerging Washington-based jazz vocalist, has developed considerable poise behind the microphone. The liner notes to her latest release, "Sunny" (Mapleshade), allude to the self-doubts she occasionally experiences in the recording studio, but if that's the case, there's little evidence of it on the new album.
Dominated by slow and often ruminative ballads composed by or associated with Horace Silver ("Lonely Woman"), Billie Holiday ("Detour Ahead"), Sarah Vaughan ("Jim") and Billy Strayhorn ("Daydream"), "Sunny" showcases Sumter's talent for rendering a lyric with simple and affecting honesty. Holiday remains an obvious influence, but because Sumter always seems focused on the lyric, there's hardly a hint of idle mimicry.
Like many other musicians who have recorded in the Washington area, Sumter is blessed to have pianist Larry Willis in her corner. The arrangements he has fashioned for this session--with and without strings--consistently flatter the singer and the song. Providing additional support is a fine cast of players, including bassist Keter Betts, drummer Jimmy Cobb and saxophonist Joe Ford.
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8152.)
Nia Olabesi: 'Spirits in My Soul'
Singer and percussionist Nia Olabesi, another jazz artist who lives in the Washington area, has released "Spirits in My Soul" (D.E.M.), a low-budget, high-octane concert recording featuring a trio led by pianist Dan La Maestra. A crowd-pleaser with a vibrant, agile voice, Olabesi infuses "Summertime" and "My Favorite Things" with such exuberance and momentum that it's easy to forgive her for choosing such sorely overworked tunes. In fact, even when the tempo slackens for a moment--on "Stormy Weather" and "Yesterday When I Was Young," for example--Olabesi has no difficulty revitalizing the shopworn tunes with her expansive phrasing and show-stopping energy.
While some of the performances clearly lose something in the translation from concert hall to living room, the force of Olabesi's personality remains a constant source of delight and inspiration.
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8153.)
CAPTION: Ethel Ennis: Subdued but spirited elegance.