On her debut album, "This Is a Bird," jazz vocalist Alison Ruble creates an atmosphere where nostalgia and innovation go hand-in-hand.
Even the artwork and album title reflect this. Ruble discovered a box of old letters that her mother and grandmother had written to each other, and snippets of the women's handwriting appear on the cover and in the CD booklet.
"I'm somewhat of a nostalgic person," Ruble says on her cell phone while traveling through Ohio. "When she was first married, my mother would write to my grandmother and my grandma would write to her, every week. My mom saved all of the letters, and they're sort of a time capsule ? an interesting glimpse into another time."
Ruble dabbles in the field of visual art and did her own screen prints for "This Is a Bird" ? named after a quaint little folk-art sketch as captioned by her grandmother ? adding to the sense of Ruble's debut being the arrival of a unique new personality on the vocal jazz scene.
The album consists mainly of '40s jazz standards ? highlights include Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer's "Skylark" and Cole Porter's "So in Love" ? but expands the idea of the Great American Songbook far enough to include a melancholy version of the Burt Bacharach-Hal David tune "Always Something There to Remind Me," a soul-pop classic that was a hit for R.B. Greaves in 1970 and Naked Eyes in 1983.
Ruble, who performs Friday with her quartet at Trio's Restaurant & Jazz Club in South Bend, studied art song and opera in college, until the greater interpretive freedom in jazz tempted her away from the classical realm.
"Studying classical voice taught me a lot about the craft of singing and an appreciation of tonality and where the voice fits into a greater whole in a performance," she says. "But I started feeling confined by it."
Ruble and her musical director, guitarist John McLean, explored a few unusual ideas with the arrangements on "This Is a Bird." Some tracks come across with a sound generally in line with what listeners might expect from an album of old standards, but other cuts have a decidedly contemporary flavor.
Although most tracks feature bassist Larry Kohut on the traditional string bass, on others he plays the Chapman Stick, a relative of the electric bass.
"It's almost a novelty to have that on a jazz record, but it's really a great instrument and it adds another element to the low end of the record," Ruble says.
On a few songs, the extraordinary playing of her studio band manages to create a vibe that is simultaneously old-fashioned and new-fangled. Her version of "The Night Has a Thousand Eyes" contains a clear reverence for the composition, while allowing in some of the brooding menace of John Coltrane's saxophone version, all the while wrapped up in a droning, alternative rock-style production.
Moments when such group alchemy kicks in are especially invigorating for the singer.
"It's a communal effort, and I love that when we're playing it's not just me out front," she says. "Everyone has a voice and is contributing to the show and to what we're presenting. I love the collaborative aspect."
Ruble's current touring group includes McLean on guitar, Eric Montzka on drums and Vijay Tellis-Nayak on organ and keyboards.