Vocalist Allegra Levy is at her strongest when purveying certain specific moods — melancholy, playful, even lightly ironic.
Looking at the Moon, Allegra Levy. (SteepleChase).
By Steve Provizer
During the 1950’s, pop and rock and roll were largely about singles, but jazz musicians were already exploring the album format, extending the length of solos and compositions and packaging albums with high concepts, such as “Songs for Lovers,” “Time Out,” “Jazz For the Thinker” “Jazz for the Space Age,” etc. And there was also the “songbook” idea, pioneered by Norman Grantz and Verve records, with Ella Fitzgerald performing compendiums of tunes by Porter, Arlen, Rodgers and Hart, Gershwin, et alia.
Still, I’ve not seen anything like what’s been happening to album releases over the past few years. More and more, I see CD’s (and concerts as well) packaged in two ways. Either the material is “a tribute,” drawn from one composer, such as Ellington, Monk, or Shorter. Or some other kind of conceptual hook is used to entice the attention of the consumer who is bewildered by a crowded and shrinking market. I recently reviewed a Kurt Elling recording marketed as songs that addressed the Big Questions.
Vocalist Allegra Levy’s album Looking at the Moon doesn’t aim for that High of a Concept. Songs are there because they have “moon” in the title. Does this way of choosing material greatly affect the experience of listening to the CD? At first I thought no, that it neither undermines nor improves the experience. As I listened, I was paying more attention to the way Levy, bassist Tim Norton, pianist Carmen Staaf, and guitarist Alex Goodman approach each song and the way it fits in with, or differs from, the standard approach to these (mostly standard) tunes. In the end, though, I changed my mind: “moon” was an appropriate celestial object to showcase the strengths of vocalist Levy.
“Moon River,” the first track, is taken as a slightly warped waltz. This song is a good fit for Levy’s voice, which floats somewhere between fragility and confidence. Levy’s version shares the wistful spirit evoked by Audrey Hepburn in the film Breakfast at Tiffiany’s. The piano solo is at the sweet end of the Bill Evans spectrum. A half-time feeling arrives on the way out, and it is a nice touch; a lightly scatted riff, a concept that reappears throughout the CD, opens and closes the tune. Listening to Levy sing this tune is like watching a child gaze at a mobile slowly responding to subtle wind currents.
On “I Got the Sun in the Morning” Levy’s voice takes on a Shirley Horne character. The lyrics are not spoken but molded, like clay. The dynamics are also nicely shaped. This song, from Annie Get Your Gun (sung by Ethel Merman on Broadway and Betty Hutton in the MGM film version) is supposed to be sung a la rustic, but the words are far too sophisticated. Levy recognizes the song’s implicit tension and manages to strike an appropriate tone. The group takes it in a jazzy medium tempo, which feels right.
“Harvest Moon” is a Neil Young song, and it’s rendered here in a slow, romantic vein. It reminds me of a Madeleine Peyroux-type musical approach. There’s a somewhat repetitious feeling here, largely a result of the song, which doesn’t have much variation. This is not as sophisticated a song, musically, as most of the others here. The simple chords do set-up a pleasing acoustic guitar solo. Guitarist Goodman’s playing is good throughout the CD, but I sometimes wonder if he knows quite how he is going to end some of his phrases. Bassist Norton solos with confidence. Levy shades the dynamics with aplomb.
“Blue Moon” is a 1934 chestnut from Rodgers and Hart. A scatted vocal bass line is joined by the bass, which moves the song forward until Levy brings in the melody. The vocal approach is playful; the group’s sound touches lightly on several genres — light Latin, Jazz, Rock-ish. They may have thought that, after the thousands of iterations of this song, they couldn’t approach it straight, that a meta-approach is called for. I understand the impulse but, while pleasant enough listening, I don’t think it puts a distinctive stamp on the song.
“Moon Ray” is a tune that Artie Shaw had a hit with in 1937. The group starts with an ostinato vamp and takes the tune as almost-a-tango. The song has an unusual and somewhat difficult melodic line; Levy carries it off well. For the only time on the CD, piano and vocalist trade 4’s (improvisations lasting 4 bars). Her scatting doesn’t push any envelopes, but it’s well done. On the last bridge, she pushes harder on the melody in an Anita O’Day way that I like.
“Moonlight in Vermont” starts off with a brief wordless vocal — a favorite device of Levy’s, and she continues with only guitar accompaniment. She takes it barely above a whisper, with lots of stretching of the time. Goodman has the prescience to take a different approach on guitar than Johnny Smith, who recorded a definitive version of this tune in 1952 with Stan Getz. When Levy comes in after the guitar solo, she presses harder, increasing the volume until, at the very end, “Moonlight in Vermont” suddenly jumps out — fortissimo! Levy holds the last note until we hear that she hasn’t got an atom of oxygen left in her lungs. It exposes the singing process, and I like that.
“Moonshadow” doesn’t begin with the opening of Cat Stevens’s original version, but with lines taken from a later refrain in the song and slowed way down: “Did it take long to find me I asked the faithful light. Did it take long to find me? Are you gonna stay the night?” It is delivered here as a shy, tremulous, question. Piano and guitar are very far back in the mix — they seem far away. Both instruments use atonalisms and chromatics, moving in and out of the song’s tonality. A sense of a gossamer, but also a vaguely threatening presence, is created, shadowing Levy as she sings the song. This is a moonshadow of possibly malign intent.
The standard “Moonglow” is taken straightforwardly, via a medium swing. There’s a section with voice scatting in unison with the piano, which is a nice touch. It might be based on someone’s solo on another performance of the tune, but I didn’t recognize it.
I’m not sure what Levy wanted to communicate with the initial raspy notes she brings to “Polkadots and Moonbeams.” In any case, she doesn’t stick to those low notes when the section comes around again. She settles into a fairly mainstream interpretation of this 1940 song (Sinatra’s first hit with Tommy Dorsey). Again, she barely touches the melody, and for me she treads a little too lightly. The meaning of the lyrics — upbeat as they are — could have reasonably inspired a little more positive affect from the vocals.
“No Moon At All” begins with another wordless vocal, and Levy’s melismatic vocal additions to the melodic line bring out the spookiness of this minor themed tune, as does the group’s stop-and-start approach to the melody. There’s a reasonable shift in feeling in the major, 2nd section of the song. Guitarist Goodman solos in the established ghostly spirit, and Levy continues to sell the otherworldliness of the song. DJ’s — get it on your playlist next Halloween.
“It’s only a Paper Moon” uses a start-and-stop approach, as in the last tune. Levy sings right out here in a way we haven’t yet heard on the CD, and she moves into an extended scat, which includes some bop tune quotations. Guitar solos, then piano, with a stop time rhythm section and then a move into full, straight ahead swing.
“Pink Moon,” a Nick Drake song, is voice and bass all the way. We open with a unison intro that develops into a complicated bass line with the vocal riding on top. “Pink, pink, pink. Pink moon.” Much of the tune is taken up with voice and bass alternating improvisations and laying down bass lines. I’m not quite sure what attitude Levy takes toward pink moons. Sometimes she sings with a doleful quality, as if to say “I have to accept the color of the moon, but I’m not completely happy with it.” Other times, she plays with the lyrics like a child simply repeating words because she gets a boot out of how they sound.
“I’ll Be Seeing You” is not really in the “moon” genre, except the line “I’ll be looking at the moon but I’ll be seeing you.” They take the song in a medium tempo, delivering a conventional reading. There’s not much to say about it.
In Looking at the Moon, Levy has assembled tunes, musicians, and arrangements that generally maximize her strengths. She sings in tune, even when tackling long sustained notes, she has a keen sense of dynamics and of how to shape words to suit the feeling of the music. She is at her strongest when purveying certain specific moods — melancholy, playful, even lightly ironic. Moods, come to think of it, that are associated with the moon.
Steve Provizer is a jazz brass player and vocalist, leads a band called Skylight and plays with the Leap of Faith Orchestra. He has a radio show Thursdays at 5 p.m. on WZBC, 90.3 FM and has been blogging about jazz since 2010.