Among New York swing jazz bandleaders, singer Svetlana Shmulyian either has the best taste in supporting musicians, or has finagled her way to the best access to them. Maybe both. She distinguishes herself as an original songwriter, and she sings in character, bringing new life to old standards as well as her own dynamic, poignant originals.
Her debut album, Night at the Speakeasy was inspired by her long weekly residency at Norfolk Street hideaway the Back Room. With a grand total of fourteen tracks, Shmulyian offers a lot of bang for the buck. And where others might have taken the safe route and opened with a standard, she kicks it off with a swinging, subtle midtempo original, All I Want, contemplating the hope for a summer solstice "in this winter city of my dreams" in a sunny soprano, shaping the blue notes with a coy bittersweetness.
Onstage, she draws from a semi-rotating cast of talent; the band here is killer, with Wycliffe Gordon on trombone (and some arrangements as well); Adrian Cunningham on saxes and clarinet; Charlie Caranicas on trumpet; Dalton Ridenhour on piano; Vinny Raniolo on guitar; George Delancey on bass; and the fantastic Rob Garcia (whose latest album is one of the year's most brilliant jazz releases) on drums.
Much as the standards - and not-so-standards - here are choice, it's her own material that stands out the most. It's All Good has Shmulyian's signature, precise articulation - she turns off her phone just to keep things nonchalant with the guy, but then she soars up into a big angst-fueled chorus. The way the sax and Shmulyian's upper register flights mingle and then hand off at the very end is artful, and awfully fun. The most retro number is Temptations, a co-write with bassist Brandi Disterheft, bringing to mind Blossom Dearie with its jaunty litany of images.
The bandleader duets with Gordon on a couple of Louis Armstrong/Ella Fitzgerald tunes. You Won't Be Satisfiied finds each reveling in their roles as wounded ingenue and similarly bruised rake, while Under a Blanket of Blue pairs dixieland flourishes with a nocturnal suspense and a bitingly good Ridenhour solo. The dynamic between Gordon's signature, irrepressible humor and Shmulyian's poignancy is a recurrent theme throughout the record.
Ridenhour and Caranicas bring some tempting latin allusions to Ellington's Just a Sittin' and a-Rockin'. Another Ellington tune, Do Nothing Til You Hear From Me gives Ridenhour a lauching pad for some Otis Spann-class purist blues. Garcia pushes the band's reinvention of the Beatles' Because with a stark tango-infused pulse under Shmulyian's surrealistically straightforward delivery. And his original, Dance In Between the Moments, is arguably the album's strongest moment; a sardonic, vivid, indelibly New York salute to escapist behavior on the Lower East Side.
Lady Be Good showcases the band's expertise in stirring up a crowd on the dancefloor, while Tea for Two goes in the other direction as a tasty guitar shuffle. Shmulyian and Cunningham duet on the album's funniest number, Sometimes I'm Happy: intentional or not, there's a whiff of Jamaican rocksteady here.
The album's most exotic track is legendary Russian trumpeter Eddie Rosner's You Are Like a Song, Shmulyian giving it a balmy, tender interpretation in the original vernacular. There's also a Beach Boys cover: the whole band gamely puts everything they have into it, but god only knows the album wouldn't suffer without it. As it is, Shmulyian and her crew have crafted one of the year's most dynamically fun releases, rooted in the past but inescapably in the here and now.