Jazz Album Review: Singer Jo Lawry’s “Acrobats” — Pulling Off the Hardest Thing
By Allen Michie
Left to her own devices for a change to pick the material, the format, and the musicians, singer Jo Lawry has chosen with grace and guts.
Jo Lawry, Acrobats (Whirlwind)
I’ve been a fan of the Australian singer Jo Lawry ever since I heard her minor key version of “Can’t Smile Without You” (on I Want to Be Happy, 2008). The slow tempo and skittery phrasing brought out all seething manic-depression and creepy codependency lurking between the lines of Barry Manilow’s sunshiny confection. You’ll never hear “I can’t smile without you/I can’t laugh and I can’t sing/I’m finding it hard to do anything” the same way again.
Lawry has a light, sometimes girlish voice, which she sometimes uses to her ironic advantage, assuming the role of a mature adult with a worldly perspective on love and life. When she takes on a song like “I’ve Never Been in Love Before,” as she does on her latest album Acrobats, it’s as much about disorientation as exhilaration: the odd time signature in the bass runs counter to the loosely attached melody floating on top, and there are some unusual dissonant notes and intervals (which she always nails perfectly on pitch).
After several fine albums in more of a pop vein, Lawry returns to her 100 percent jazz roots with her first solo album in 10 years. “I thought, what is the hardest thing I could do?,” she has said (like the bona fide jazz artist she is). “And the answer was a trio album: voice, bass, and drums, where I’m trying to function like a horn player and we’re providing the whole landscape without the benefit of chords.” Lots of singers have done duos with piano, but trios are rare, and a trio without a piano or guitar is rarer still. Because it requires the highest level of listening and subtle responsiveness, it is only possible with an exceptional bass player and drummer. Lawry hit a home run here with bassist Linda May Han Oh and drummer Allison Miller.
As brilliant as Miller is, the album could just have easily been Oh’s date. Her playing is consistently inventive and engaging. This pianoless format is the ideal opportunity for a detailed appreciation of her harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic choices both as soloist and accompanist. She’s one of the most accomplished bassists out there, as Pat Metheny, Kenny Barron, Joe Lovano, Dave Douglas, and many others have already discovered.
The album is mostly standards, many of them quite weather-beaten ones, but all the better when highlighting Lawry’s fresh approaches. (It’s bold enough to do a vocal trio recording with no piano, but then do it with art-house versions of “Two to Tango” or “You’re the Top.” There’s no place to hide. Terrifying!) On “Taking a Chance on Love,” Lawry’s soft vowels have a flexible, comfortable way around the structures of the melody, always swinging in that loose modernistic way. Miller and Oh slide in and out of double time, I assume improvising and following each other’s cues, always in perfect sync. “‘Deed I Do” finds all three listening carefully and moving together as a unit. You can hear them each responding to one another’s phrasing, passing the melodic ball around. It’s a standout track.
One of the challenges in a format like this is finding enough sonic variety. The ear can become tired hearing the same three sounds, engineered the same way, over the course of an entire album. Lawry’s voice is naturally thin and light by nature, and Oh plays acoustic bass throughout, so it’s largely up to Miller to provide the variety with the drums. She does so with taste and imagination, incorporating low-tech effects such as a muffled snare, different types of sticks and brushes, and sections of songs that emphasize particular parts of the drum kit. “You’re the Top” is a duet with Lawry and Miller, and Miller keeps it fun with a playful sense of swing. On other tracks, such as “You’re the Voice” (a cover of Lawry’s fellow Australian John Farnham’s hit), Miller plays a rock rhythm in an unusual time signature that infuses the entire track with artistic intelligence. Miller keeps the drive going without ever crowding out the intimate sound of the voice and bass, which a less experienced drummer would have done by the middle of the first take. It’s not just about controlling the volume, it’s about controlling the density.
There are two songs from the musical Guys and Dolls. “My Time of Day/I’ve Never Been in Love Before” is unusual for including the often-neglected prefatory song, “My Time of Day,” which Lawry delivers relatively straight in order to protect the delicate melody. “If I Were a Bell” captures some of the inebriation of the original, with the lyrics giving way to a lighthearted scat solo. Miller is a pleasure on the drums, swinging and responsive. It’s nice to get a chance to clearly hear Oh walking, although she’s never far from sliding into a solo. If I’m not mistaken, Lawry makes two key changes which don’t throw Oh off one bit.
If you want to hear Lawry unchained and going for it, there’s “3217 East 32nd Street” by Lennie Tristano. There are no lyrics, and Lawry charges in with inventive and disciplined scat singing. Oh has radar for ears and begins to phrase in some of the same ways during her solo. It’s a delight to hear them do unison bop passages in the head and conclusion, like hearing the same instrument, only four octaves apart.
Lawry has been a backup singer for Sting for the last 10 years or so. Check out their remarkable duet “Unlearning” from Lawry’s The Bathtub and the Sea (2018). Sting’s clear pitch on some very difficult intervals is a revelation; it’s clear that he’s in Lawry’s territory, and not her in his for a change. She’s beaten the odds and established her own distinctive career in parallel to her backup work with Sting, Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel, and others. Left to her own devices for a change to pick the material, the format, and the musicians, she’s chosen with grace and guts.
Allen Michie works in higher education administration in Austin, Texas. He’s the manager of the Miles Davis Discussion Group on Facebook.