City of StrangersBest jazz albums of 2014, honorable mention - Francis Davis, NPR
A jazz saxophonist doesn’t generally plan on leading a vocal album of Broadway songs. He doesn’t plan on going to a jam session and hearing a singer, still a 2nd-yr university student, who within three measures strikes him as the ideal combination of the jazz singer’s T’s: technique, time, timbre, taste, and tunes. Sure, he and this singer—the extraordinary Alex Samaras—that same day decide that they want to collaborate on a vaguely expressed something focusing on songs rather than jazz chops. And sure, they discover that they both love the music of Stephen Sondheim. But no one plans on letting two years go by before singer and sax player reconnect, the latter realizing that in the meantime he had written enough arrangements to play an entire evening devoted just to Sondheim.
So yes, I’m a little surprised to be here.
I’m not surprised, however, that every inch deeper I dig into Sondheim’s work is rewarded with inspiration, amazement, challenge, beauty, and opportunity.
Among these opportunities is one that jazz musicians seldom have: the opportunity to really live each song as a dramatic moment. In addition to his qualities as a musician, Alex possesses an actor’s gift for storytelling through song, and I have tried to make sure the arrangements, while standing on their own as jazz tunes, honour Sondheim’s original narrative through-line. The band is called A Sondheim Jazz Project, but it is in many ways a jazz Sondheim project.
Another opportunity, a hugely gratifying one, is the chance to re-acquaint jazz audiences with theatre audiences, two crowds that have not rubbed shoulders much since the 1960s. As both jazz and musical theatre ceased to be mass popular entertainment, they became socially marked: Broadway as Jewish, Gay and nostalgic, jazz as Black, masculine and avant-guard. Older musicians still played standard show tunes, but bebop compositional conventions were ill suited to the structural and harmonic innovations of a Broadway that had been liberated from the responsibility of producing stand-alone radio hits. Meanwhile, younger players were inventing the very musical language that would make such adaptation possible, but had stopped listening to Broadway. Before long theatre composers had stopped listening to jazz as well (to their great detriment, in my opinion), and the break was complete. Reaction to A Sondheim Jazz Project among those who have not yet seen our shows falls into two general categories, one typified by the woman at a party who yanked her friend out of a neighbouring conversation to tell her “Ohmygod! This guy’s band does all Sondheim!”, and the other typified by jazz musicians who have asked “So, uh, who is this Sondheim guy?” It is my hope that our album offers something for both camps. For jazz fans, beautiful, intelligent songs made stylistically legible to people who might otherwise reject “show tunes” out of hand; for theatre folk, a fresh engagement with the underlying power of material that may have become too familiar from cabarets and auditions.
One thing that both groups can agree on: Jackie Richardson is a national treasure. It was not my plan to approach anyone of her stature to sing on this album. Incredibly, when she heard Alex sing and heard about our concept, she approached us! More than any Canadian I can think of, Jackie’s career embodies the union of jazz and musical theatre I’m aiming for with the Project. Her performance on “Take Me to the World” will open up your ears for joy. Jenny Johnston you may be less familiar with. Jenny’s beautiful, light voice and phrasing make her the perfect casting choice for Philia’s part in the song “Lovely”. Lovely indeed. If this album contributes to getting her voice “out there”, I’ve done a good thing.
Lastly, a word about D’Arcy, Morgan and James: far from being hired guns, these great musicians and friends have been crucial to the evolution of our sound over the two years we have been slugging it out in the clubs: fixing my mistakes here, adding delightful surprises there, always grooving hard and fully on board with the goal of presenting both music and lyrics in their best light.
I could not have planned it better.Band photos: Chloë Ellingson chloeellingson.com