Laurie Antonioli and Richie Beirach

Varuna

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MUSIC REVIEW BY Carol Banks Weber, AXS

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Very rarely lately does the album artwork match the music waiting for the right listener to unlock a whirlwind of emotions. Here on Laurie Antonioli and Richie Beirach's vocal-piano duo album, they do as the pair invites listeners to sit in on their celestial conversation set to stun.

Bay Area jazz singer Laurie Antonioli is not a strong vocalist, but what she does with songs is carry them further than those with every octave on command or the charm of an over-achieving next branch of Ella Fitzgerald. What she does on her new September 18, 2015 album Varuna [Origin Records] with longtime pianist Richie Beirach is traverse human introspection as if hanging out after-hours at a favorite coffeehouse or nightclub with a best friend, talking the day away into night.

Varuna is probably what comes about after such a duo session, if you're musicians. Varuna is the Hindu god of the water and the celestial ocean. It is also part of the name of a new dwarf planet coasting away near Pluto. Antonioli purposely chose the name for her sixth major album, a more than suitable follow-up to the 2014 critically acclaimed, Joni Mitchell-approved tribute release, Songs Of Shadow, Songs Of Light. Varuna reunites Antonioli with Beirach, a collaborator on the same wavelength for over 25 years.

Antonioli and Beirach spent those 25-plus-years boosting each other up, growing together as artists, and forging a strong bond, which is most evident on this elaborately rendered, 13-song set. "Richie and I have been friends and collaborators since we first met in 1988, performing both in Europe and the United States. We've had some extraordinary experiences, from the Leipzig Gewandhaus, with a full choir singing my lyrics to Richie's music, to duo concerts in cities including Instanbul, Vienna, Zagreb, Munich, and San Francisco," Antonioli, album producer, described in the liner notes.

Varuna came about after a good number of spontaneous studio sessions with pianist Beirach following their performances the past 10 years. "As I traced the arc of the past 10 years of these ad hoc sessions, I found a storyline of dreams, the night sky, the morning sun, birth, death, the unseen, and of course, love," Antonioli continued in the liner notes. "The narrative of Varuna is shaped from our favorite sessions in Leipzig, Germany [where the pianist lives] in 2006 and Berkeley, CA in 2012, with some additional recording done specifically for this album in 2015," which she called mostly "introspective."

Antonioli has her accompanist to thank for more than his classically influenced polish. As a trusted friend and supporter, Beirach also kept her on track as a vocalist, even during times of self doubt. "Laurie is the real deal. She's got a rich, elegant, colorful alto voice, great intonation, and amazingly creative and spontaneous phrasing. But most of all, she possesses that unteachable, unexplainable element of humanity deep down in every note she sings," Beirach described in an Origin Records press release. "Piano and voice is very intimate, with no place to hide but incredibly free and capable of magic moments. I love working with Laurie because it's truly like breathing from the same source of air. Especially on this CD, we are as one mind, one will, and one musical entity."

Beirach eerily captured Antonioli's essence as a singer.

Because while Antonioli can't quite make the rounded notes smooth enough, she renders a concave of emotions in words we cannot say that Beirach also picks up on in his man-made notes. "Over The Rainbow" is a perfect reflection of this organic touch in a perfectly imperfect duet between a spare, thoughtful vocalist and her intuitive shadow. Beirach vocalizes Antonioli's conversational vocal style, as if the two were singing only to one another, finishing each other's sentences, on that random starry night when the crowds have gone home and they're shutting the club down.

Antonioli takes morsels of the lyrics for herself from this often-covered Judy Garland favorite, mulling over meaning and effect as she's putting her voice to the them. Instead of polish, Antonioli strips away any pretense to go as raw and bare as she can, while slowing down the tempo and playing with the thought process, rushing one sentiment in a gush, then lingering on another as if unable to bear leaving.

She does this on all the songs, her signature style. However, in case one mistakenly assumes Antonioli can't reach any of the notes like a singer should, just put on "Exaltation." Without a word, she raises her voice in a humble majesty, a trajectory of triumph and optimism as Beirach underscores the joy in his rumbling, evocative mass.

The songs are a hodgepodge of whatever floats to the surface of Antonioli and Beirach's ad hoc sessions. They include several bonafide original hits, the title track with Beirach, Antonioli's lyrics on "You're An Angel Now" to bassist John Patitucci's music, and the fantastic study in classical inspiration, "Resolution Suite" featuring three mood-shifting movements with bassist Pepe Berns. Antonioli and Beirach also repurpose covers: John Coltrane's "Impressions," "Haunted Heart," "Gentle Rain," "Prelude In E-Flat Minor/My Funny Valentine."

"I've been sitting on these sessions until the time was right," Antonioli said in the press release. "We do some of Richie's brand-new original material, with my lyrics, as well as several standards completely reimagined. The 'Resolution Suite' features three pieces improvised by Richie and me with bassist Pepe Berns. The poem on 'Revelation' happened in the moment, and 'Exaltation' was inspired by Coltrane's 'sheets of sound.'"








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