Album releases by Greta Matassa and Kelley Johnson show two Seattle jazz singers at the top of their game
Two artists indelibly linked to Tula's Restaurant & Jazz Club, which is closing at the end of this month, are Seattle's best female jazz singers — Greta Matassa and Kelley Johnson — who both celebrated the release of new albums at the club this summer. Where they will debut their next albums is an open question, but in the meantime, we have CDs by a pair of local vocalists working at the top of their game.
Both Matassa and Johnson are genuine jazz singers — they improvise, they swing, they draw deeply from the blues — but they could not be more different. If you like astrology, Matassa is earth, Johnson, air. Both are fiery, but Matassa shoots from the gut, punching listeners with Aretha-like cries, a quick vibrato and theatrical builds, à la Nancy Wilson. Johnson, inspired by Betty Carter, is headier, offering twists and turns, or dazzling listeners with the stark crystal clarity of, say, Chris Connor. Both know how to get inside a song and sell it.
Live, Matassa sometimes over-sings and scats too much, but on her new CD, her first since 2011 and dedicated to her late father (who painted the colorful cover portrait), she reins in those tendencies, delivering a tasteful set that alternates between ballsy soulfulness and whispered delicacy. She especially hits her mark on the slow-dance R&B triplets of Bob Dylan's "To Make You Feel My Love," complete with a tenor sax screamer from Alexey Nikolaev. The emotional gravity of "Down Here on the Ground" (theme from the film "Cool Hand Luke") and the breakneck, Tony Bennett-inspired tongue-twister, "The Beat of My Heart," also shine.
She deftly pairs two sad songs of late-in-life parting, "The One Who Loves the Most" and "Softly As I Leave You," and imparts the Lil Armstrong scorned-lover classic, "Just For A Thrill," with Dinah Washington intensity. Other listeners will no doubt find other favorites on a well-chosen program that also includes two from the Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn book, "Prelude to a Kiss" and "Lush Life."
Both Matassa and Johnson are skilled at finding songs that haven't been done to death or at finding new ways to sing ones that have. Johnson kicks off her album with a warm, after-hours rendition of the not-often-performed song by Stephen Sondheim, "Anyone Can Whistle," capping it off with some whistling of her own. She reprises that questioning, childlike mood at the end of the album, with the Richard Rodgers classic, "Something Good." Such songs express a light, sunny, ingénue side of Johnson that sparkles on Cole Porter's "You Do Something to Me" ("You do/that voodoo/that you do/so well"). Also in that vein are Porter's "Let's Do It," "Tip Toe Gently" and a delightfully up-tempo "You For Me."
But Johnson has a more explicitly modern jazz side, too — dark, modal, intricate — that comes through on her pulsing, agitated arrangement of Leonard Bernstein's dramatic melody, "Some Other Time." And while she may lose some listeners with her floating re-imagining of the warhorse, "Unforgettable," (done in 5/4 time), she deepens the Carpenters pop classic, "Goodbye to Love," with scat passages in her dark, throaty alto and turbulent rhythmic change-ups. Scatting is not the only way for a vocalist to improvise and Johnson excels at making subtle melodic changes, particularly on her tender rendition of George Shearing's "Lullaby of Birdland."
Both Johnson and Matassa are blessed with creative, supportive pianists — John Hansen and Darin Clendenin, respectively — and it's probably not an exaggeration to say that the organic coherence of their bands stems in part from the frequent workouts they got at Tula's over the years.