Vocalist Alison Ruble adds her name to the list of great Chicago musicians making CDs for Seattle's Origin Records with her latest, This is a Bird. It's a beautiful disc with a phenomenal backing band that would likely make it nearly impossible to put out anything but a top-notch effort. So, put a great singer on top and play a bunch of great tunes, and you'll have a foolproof album. And that's exactly what we've got here.
This is a Bird's other great attribute, besides the fantastic band, is the excellent choice in tunes and the way that they were all arranged. While the most familiar of the tunes ("Skylark," "Always Something There to Remind Me," and others) don't lose any of their charm or recognition, some of the lesser known tunes on here get turned inside out. "Interlude," the kick-off song, was originally written by Pete Rugolo, but in Ruble's hands, it sounds far more like Pat Metheny that Stan Kenton. One of the few swinging moments on This is a Bird, "It's Magic," is a nice break in the action which features Kohut prominently on a voice/bass duet.
Another interesting arrangement is found on "If I Had You," which sounds a lot like something Bill Frisell or even Sex Mob might do. This is certainly not the usual terrain for songs out of the Great American Songbook. The arrangement doesn't hinder the song, though. If anything, it frames the melody nicely and makes for a great showcase for bassist Larry Kohut and guitarist John McLean, who, as always, steals the show whenever given a chance to cut it up a little bit.
Jim Gailloreto's impressive solo on "Lazy Afternoon" is an intense solo on an interesting arrangement of an old-school classic. What's truly shocking is the sheer amount of weight this arrangement carries, flying in the face of the laid back versions we usually hear.
What I find most fascinating about This is a Bird is Ruble's vocal similarities to Joni Mitchell. Without being an imitation, there are certain nuances that are reminiscent of the way Mitchell bent notes or held onto certain sounds on her work with Jaco Pastorius in the late seventies. While it's seemingly hip for female singers to be influenced or informed by Ms. Mitchell these days, Ruble isn't a slave to that influence, and that's a refreshing change of pace. That said, I don't know Ms. Ruble, so for all I know such an influence might be nothing more than coincidence. However, that sound is certainly there, and it's a noticeable tool in Ruble's arsenal.
Strangely, there seems to be a bit of a similarity as of late between some of Chicago's best known female vocalists. Jackie Allen, Patricia Barber, Grazyna Auguscik and Alison Ruble are all finding different paths towards a very similar down-tempo, awesome-guitarist-plus-pliable-piano trio sound. It's a great sound, and these singers are doing great things with that format.
It is rare when a reviewer cannot really register a single complaint About an album. It might be nice if there were more up-tempo selections, but the lack of such material only adds to the overall cohesion of the CD. If Patricia Barber, Jackie Allen, Janice Borla or Grazyna Auguscik are your cup of tea, then This is a Bird will be a welcome addition to your CD library.