The fifth album from East Bay-based jazz vocalist Karen Marguth rewards on multiple levels. Mention first must be made of a lithe and attractive voice that elevates whatever material it attaches itsef to; her delivery throughout the eleven-track set is assured and engaged but not, thankfully, self-indulgent: for her, the song comes first. And speaking of which, the curatorial choices she's made prove as satisfying when old favourites mix with recent classics. Many a song is rooted in pop, but the performances enliven them with infectious jazz feeling. Critical to the presentation too are classy arrangements rich in variety and, like the vocal styling, customized to serve the material.
One other detail, astutely noted by Andrew Gilbert on the package sleeve, invites mention. Despite the fact that the album was recorded over a ten-year period and features her with three distinct ensemble groupings, Until impresses as remarkably cohesive. In fact, the only track that feels like it's from a separate group is the closing one, simply because it's a live duet in contrast to the studio productions preceding it. What holds the project together is Marguth's voice, of course, as well as her guiding sensibility.
Two of the three outfits are groups from Fresno, California, with the third her most recent collaborators from the San Francisco Bay Area. All of the participants acquit themselves splendidly, but special mention might be made of the guitar (Mike Taylor)-mandolin (Eva Scow)-bass (Pat Olvera)-and-drums (Nathan Guzman) outfit Espacio that joins Marguth on two tracks. Sting's "Until" is rendered all the more captivating through its involvement, and the treatment of Paul Simon's "Hearts and Bones," from his 1983 album of the same name, is as memorable. Consider how gracefully she glides over the beautifully textured backdrop the quartet fashions for the title track, and how subtly the group infuses Simon's swooning song with the kind of swing that would permeate Graceland. In addition, pianist David Aus contributes an album highlight in his arrangement of "Old Friends - Bookends," which sees Satie transition into a moving rendition of Simon's touching ballad.
A sultry reading of "Comes Love" opens the set with Marguth backed by a trio she worked with for many years—Aus, bassist Richard Giddens, and the late drummer Brian Hamada—plus trumpeter Erik Jekabson. While he adds delicious muted counterpoint to the vocal, she invests her rhythmic acrobatics with a sly and sexy feel. For a lyrical ballad rendering of "What Color Is Love," the trio and vocalist are joined by trumpeter Gilbert Castellanos, and on a jazzier tip there's a freewheeling trio take on Bernice Petkere's "Close Your Eyes," with Marguth joined by acoustic bassist Dan Feiszli and pianist Burr. Capping the release is an intimate live performance of "Days of Wine and Roses" recorded in 2014 and featuring Marguth and Aus only.
Elsewhere, Joni Mitchell's "Black Crow" receives a bluesy makeover that's bolstered by John Burr's Wurlitzer electric piano and funky propulsion from bassist Matt Finders and drummer Kelly Zaban Fasman. Exemplifying the range of which she's capable, Marguth and company expertly navigate the sensual Afro-Peruvian lando groove of "La Ronda" by Columbian singer Marta Gomez. With percussionists George Ramirez and Omar Ledezma, Jr. adding extra rhythmic heft, the performance entices as delectably as anything else on the release. On an album otherwise featuring covers, Until includes "Maureen," an original ballad co-written by the singer and bassist Matt Finders and elevated by pithy flugelhorn playing by Jekabson.
Marguth has been called "one of the finest American jazz vocalists" by Jazz Times, and the evidence at hand supports the claim. Regardless of whether she's tackling a standard or contemporary classic, she excels at amplifying the beauty of the song and handling the material with respect. It would be hard to imagine any songwriter being anything but thrilled to have her as an interpreter.