Jeff Baker, one of the best male jazz vocalists around today, is also the vocal director at ArtsWest School for Performing Arts in Eagle, Idaho. Working with high school age performers must be a gas, because Baker has produced a very engaging vocal jazz outing, featuring his students backed by an Origin Records all-star band, with pianist Justin Nielsen sitting in the piano/arranger's chair.
Redefinition takes a batch of familiar jazz tunes by the likes of George Gershwin, Henry Mancini, and Rodgers and Hart, and mixes in some popular songs from Prince, Joni Mitchell and Coldplay, with one traditional spiritual thrown in for good measure, and redefines them; bending their shapes a bit and giving them fresh spins.
Under the guidance of polished professionals Baker and Nielsen, and backed by a roster of versatile top level musicians, the set holds up so well that the ages of the singers becomes simply a matter of interest. There is not a half-baked or tentative performance on the set; these young people sing with an uncluttered purity of feeling and remarkable confidence.
The Gershwins' "My Man's Gone Now" opens the set. Nielsen's piano sparkles, while Brent Jensen blows a sinewy soprano sax accompaniment to Camille Avery's heartfelt vocal, as the singer tells her story with feeling and a genuine sense of loss, giving way to John McLean's searing guitar.
The songs are old familiar tales, leaning on the love or love lost theme. LeAnne Robinson gets deep into a beautiful, weary blues feeling on "You Don't Know What Love Is," while Georgia Sedlack soars in a buoyant take of Mancini's "Moon River." Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time" (a Miles Davis favorite) is slowed down to a dirge, with a spare arrangement complimenting Cari Stevens' very direct and seemingly world-weary singing.
The band brings in a funk feel on Prince's "Nothing Compares," with Fara Sumbureru bouncing into a light groove. "Much Farther to Go," a Rosie Thomas tune, features a Karmen Wolf's pure-toned, horn-like delivery.
Harris Long?the lone male solo vocalist on the disc?possesses a rich baritone similar to Kurt Elling, and gives a fitting reverence to the traditional "City Called Heaven."
Coldplay's "Sparks" closes the disc on a modern-leaning note. Mary Thompson's vocal exudes a melancholy, drifting-into-the-twilight mood. As the tune winds down she is joined by the choir?the other soloists plus Michael Wood, Sekayi Sumbureru and Andrew Koba?for a classy, collaborative ending to Redefinition, a fine set of jazz vocal tunes that introduce a bunch of amazing young talent.