Libby York


oa2 22208


iTunes - $9.99

MUSIC REVIEW BY David McGee, Deep Roots


TOP ALBUMS OF 2023 With four critically acclaimed albums behind her, elegant chanteuse Libby York made sure her fifth would be equally memorable. In her liner notes, Ms. York says the oft-covered Johnny Mercer-Harold Arlen beauty, "Hit the Road to Dreamland" (written by Mercer and Arlen for the 1942 musical film Star Spangled Rhythm and first recorded by Mercer and the Mellowaires accompanied by the Freddie Slack Orchestra for what became a #16 single on the U.S. charts), "kind of evokes my state of mind during the two years of the pandemic lockdown and the thrill of coming out of it." She may have understated the case. Dreamland, as a whole, seems like one long exhale, an understandable response to the strictures of pandemic, in being mellow, straightforwardly romantic, and very much contained within its own world, musically as fashioned by a virtuosic trio of seasoned jazz players who play completely within themselves on guitar, bass and drums, lyrically according to the wit and literacy of some towering songwriters whose legends loom large in the Great American Songbook. To these attributes Ms. Libby adds the je ne sais quoi of great interpretive singing: immersing herself so thoroughly in each moment as to transform the songs into her own personal statements. And seeming to do so without breaking a sweat. Her voice, falling somewhere on the scale between Peggy Lee's breathy suggestiveness and June Christy's vivacity (Ms. York includes a stark, emotional reading [vocal-and-guitar] of "Something Cool," the title track from Christy's1955 Capitol album featuring her backed by Pete Rugolo's orchestra), engages the narratives as familiar texts she understands in her marrow and simply has to tell their stories, which may be hers. She engages in no vocal pyrotechnics beyond impressing with her imperturbable cool.

Backed by guitarist Randy Napoleon, bassist Rodney Whitaker and drummer Keith Hall (their collective resume comprises a Who's Who of contemporary jazz and pop titans), Ms. York assays a dozen chestnuts from the abovementioned Mercer and Hart, from Antonio Carlos Jobim and his collaborator Vinicius de Moraes ("Estrada Brance [This Happy Madness]," Rodgers and Hart, Abbey Lincoln (with whom Ms. York studied), Artie Shaw, Barry Manilow setting to music Mercer lyrics given to him by the Mercer estate following the songwriter's death ("When October Goes"), Schwartz and Dietz, among others. To these ears, Ms. Libby's notable deviation from the prevailing low-key mood she and her combo have established on the album comes via her stout reading of her former mentor Abbey Lincoln's song "Throw It Away," dating from 1984's Painted Lady album, released at a time when the activist Lincoln was exploring more philosophical themes in her music. In this case, her inspiration was the I Ching, a "magic book" in Lincoln's words, with a message that may have expressed the artist's own thoughts, and fears, about having at once ended her marriage and her career. Ms. York's version remains subtly upbeat and there's a striking lift in her voice when she sings "keep your hand wide open/let the sun shine through/you can never lose a thing/if it belongs to you" (a sentiment echoing the Cherokee philosophy of setting something you love free and awaiting its return to know if it's meant to be yours) and a bracing solemnity when she advises, "Throw it away/throw it away/give your love, live your life/each and every day." It's arguably her best performance on Dreamland, and certainly the most thought provoking.

Which is not to diminish the effect and affect of what she brings to the other tunes she's chosen to represent this moment in her post-pandemic life. There happens to be another "throw it away" sentiment on Dreamland, and it comes in the Rodgers and Hart tune "Mountain Greenery," introduced in the 1926 Broadway musical Garrick Gaieties by Sterling Holloway and Bobbie Perkins. In this instance, the suggestion to throw something away is not about anything metaphysical but rather physical, in pursuit of pastoral pleasures—"so blow your job, throw your job away/now's the time to trust/in your wanderlust/in the city dust we wait/must wait, just you wait..."—at which point the trio breaks into a high-spirited, finger popping strut as Ms. York elaborates: "in the mountain greenery, just two crazy people together." Herewith but one example of the clever wordplay populating these songs. Another would certainly be Arthur Dietz and Howard Schwartz's "Rhode Island is Famous for Your," penned for the 1948 musical revue Inside U.S.A., an upbeat love song masquerading as a travelogue citing the most famous products to emerge from the various States. The lighthearted reading here features Randy Napoleon's tart, concise hollow body guitar phrases complementing Ms. York's rhythmic attack in this engaging romp. Back in torch territory, so sad and beautiful, Ms. York delivers a poignant, measured take on the Mercer-Manilow entry, "When October Goes" (heretofore associated with latter-era Rosemary Clooney) with discrete backing by guitar and bass as the singer carefully navigates the bittersweet lyric that at first seems to be lamenting the change of seasons but is in fact a chronicle of lost love personified by the changing season. There's a touching moment when you feel Ms. York gets it just right when she sings, tenderly, "And when October goes, the same old dream appears/and I am in your arms to share the happy years/I've turned my head away to hide the helpless tears/oh how I hate see"—and her she pauses to enunciate "October" syllable by syllable—"Oc-to-ber"—before pausing again, only to return with a deadpan "go," weighted with lamentable, irrevocable finality more common to Harold Pinter dialogue. Not to worry—the album closes on an upbeat, positive note with "It's Love," penned by Leonard Bernstein, Adolph Green and Betty Comden, and at that a tune Ms. York performed with Maestro Bernstein on piano at a Key West dinner party some years ago. Lenny certainly would have approved of the combo's rhythmically astute support, of Napoleon's swinging guitar soloing and especially of the singer's carefree reading evoking the thrill of recognition when the real thing when it comes along. Dreamland is the real thing too, and it's easy to love.





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