Greta Matassa has never stopped performing extensively or touring with her widely admired quintet, but it has been years since she has made a new recording. The singer's first album since 2011 is a reminder of the rare depth of her musicianship and her ability to fnd the essence of a song. The longtime colleagues with her on Portrait are veterans of the vital Pacific Northwest jazz community. Matassa selects thirteen songs that are among the finest of the past century, going back as far as1939 and "Just For A Thrill." Matassa plumbs the soulful depths of that Lil Armstrong-Don Raye classic at a tempo that is slower than slow, sustaining long tones and at the end interacting with Alexey Nikolaev's tenor saxophone in one of several appearances by that Russian-born musician. Nikolaev has become a mainstay of jazz in Seattle. "Gone With The Wind" opens with Matassa and the powerful bassist Clipper Anderson as partners in rhythm for a chorus before drummer Mark Ivester and pianist Darin Clendenin join them. Ivester's subtle way with wire brushes is key to his effectiveness, but he exhibits full-range drumming on the up-tempo "If You Never Fall In Love With Me," which began life in 1960 when bassist Sam Jones wrote it as an instrumental called "Del Sasser." The piece became a staple in the repertory of Cannonball Adderley's quintet. Donald Wolf added the lyric, which Matassa sings with zest reminiscent of Adderley's on alto saxophone.
Among the album's ballads, Matassa invests Johnny Mandel's and Peggy Lee's "The Shining Sea" with sweetness matched by Nikolaev's tenor when he winds around and under her voice as the track dissolves in a subtle key change. The two are entwined even more tightly in Bob Dylan's "To Make You Feel My Love," written by Dylan without the word "To" in the title and first recorded by Billy Joel in 1997 before Dylan's own version appeared. Other highlights in Matassa's unusual and welcome album: Ennio Morricone's "That Day" from the film Cinema Paradiso, with a lyric by Stan Dunn; The Lalo Schifrin-Gale Garnett ballad "Down Here On The Ground; a spirited non-showbizzy "Baubles, Bangles And Beads with pianist Clendenin inspired and Matassa scatting with a musicianly understanding of what the tune is made of.
Finally, I must mention Matassa and company's visits to the Ellington-Strayhorn song book, first in her reflective treatment of Duke Ellington's "Prelude To A Kiss." Ivester's brush work and Clendenin's piano solo are essential elements in her interpretation of that classic. The album closes with Billy Strayhorn's "Lush Life." All members of the quintet support Matassa and one another in what could become known as a definitive vocal version of that masterpiece. The album's cover painting of Greta's mother is a work by her late father, James Goehle, whom she credits with inspiring her career.