Phrases is a Real Treasure, 5-Stars
Let me just say for the record, I am not a big fan of jazz vocal music. Of course there are notable exceptions, mostly consisting of those whose heyday was some time ago (see: Nina, Frank, Nat). But last week, I saw this singer I'd never heard of, Jeff Baker, show up in the new release jazz panel on Apple Music. Seeing dependable Brian Blade attached to the project, I decided to give it a whirl. Man, am I glad I did! Phrases is one beautiful record.
The key to Phrases' success if Baker's approach to music-making. Whereas most jazz vocal records are by definition about the vocalist (it's not called "lead singer syndrome" for nothing!), Baker adopts an ensemble approach. This is an all-hands-on-deck effort, with every member of the fairly large group (Baker, three horns, and a four-piece rhythm section) bringing so much personality and heart to every track.
Baker uses his voice first and foremost as the vehicle to deliver the song's head, leaving it to the band to expand on, and accentuate, the melody. To wit, the vast majority of songs are well over 5 minutes, and I would be surprised if Baker's singing constitutes more than 20% of any one tune. This is not to say that he isn't bringing a lot to the table with his instrument. Baker's voice has a wonderful timbre, and completely lacks of any affectation or ego. He is always serving the song and arrangement, not the other way around.
Speaking of songs and arrangements, both are great. As an example, let's take the first two minutes of the album's second track, a cover of Billy Joel's "And So It Goes." This is quite bold choice, as the original version is rather perfect. But Baker sets out to make it his own.
Right off the bat, there is no real chordal guidance, with the bass and guitar repeating patterns based on the root chord, while the piano is offering dissident textures. Over this tension, Baker sings the melody with complete fidelity to how Joel wrote it. The horns enter between the verses in a staggered manner, mimicking the delayed effect on the staccato guitar line. Ever so gently, the first chordal movement begins at the start of the second verse, gains greater definition in the third bar ("You answered me with no pretense"), and fully blossoms with the next bar's horn part. The horn line that then accompanies the last line of the second verse ("My silence is my self defense") brilliantly foreshadows the melody of the beginning of the chorus ("And this is why").
The album is filled with intricate jewels like this. And the performances -- the interplay between the musicians -- makes them glimmer. I mean I could seriously listen to Blade play all day, anticipating, and playing off of, his bandmates. If there is a more musical drummer out there, I have yet to hear him!
All this to say, Phrases is a real treat, warranting repeated listens. I encourage you to try it!