Rebecca Sullivan & Mike Allemana: "This Way, This Time" (Rhyme or Reason) 2012
Produced by Geof Bradfield
Recorded & Mixed by Vijay Tellis-Nayak @ Transient Sound
Mastered by Brian Scwab
Front & Liner Photos: Maura Sullivan
Back Cover Photo: Ingrid Karolewski
Artwork: Gina Stewart
90% of new records I receive from female jazz singers are extremely predictable in terms of repertoire, arrangements and product. The same old GAS standards done with minimal or no creativity at all. Most of these singers want to be the next Diana Krall, when not even Krall herself seems comfortable in keeping her sonic aesthetics anymore. Anyway, what matters is the pleasure I feel when listening to someone who wants to break the mold. And takes chances!
Rebecca Sullivan does it very well on her debut CD, "This Way, This Time," so far one of the best surprises of the year. Her choice of repertoire is self-consciously unconventional. She goes beyond jazz, mixing affecting interpretations of infrequently heard gems by Johnny Mandel (“The Shining Sea”), Friedrich Hollaender (“Strange Enchantment”), and Hoagy Carmichael (“Ivy”) with boldly personal versions of songs by the Beach Boys (“Wouldn’t It Be Nice”), Nick Drake (“Blossom Friend”), and St. Vincent (“Human Racing”). She also contributes two originals ("Some Kind of Love" and the title track, co-written with Allemana), and closes the album with Johnny Mandel/Dave Frishberg’s poignant “You Are There.” That closing track, alone, would be enough to make Rebecca's work worthy of attention.
Gifted with a pure tone, she phrases and ennunciates better than most singers around these days. Sullivan knows how to tell a story: concisely & succintly. Chicago guitarist Mike Allemana is the perfect partner, not merely a backing musician. He doesn't only supports Sullivan; he challenges and stimulates her to musical adventures that many veteran singers (Rebecca, although incredibly mature, has only a 6-year professional career) would prefer to avoid. Not to mention some great guitar solos, always intriguing but never over-performed.
With her girlish sophistication, gleaming intelligence, and three-octave range, the Pennsylvania native is at 29 already a full-blown original. Sullivan came into her own as a jazz vocalist in Chicago, where she’s been based since 2006 and where she’s frequently gigged with Mike Allemana. Their compelling musical chemistry is the main event on "This Way, This Time," a fantastic duo session released on Rhyme or Reason Records last month.
“Rebecca has a lovely, liquid instrument, often evocative of Billie Holiday yet completely personal and unpretentious,” says saxophonist Geof Bradfield, who produced the album. “Her delivery is so intimate, and it really works seamlessly with Mike’s inspired colors and textures.”
“Rebecca really gets inside the lyric,” says Allemana. “Unlike many young singers, she never manipulates the melody or takes it out of context. She knows the composer wrote it that way for a reason.”
A native of York, Pennsylvania, Rebecca Sullivan grew up with several music traditions—singing in her family’s a cappella gospel group, studying classical piano (and winning competitions), steeping herself in American standards from the 1940s and ’50s. As a student at Portland’s Reed College, she performed folk music on open-mic nights, accompanying herself on guitar. But her first exposure to jazz came in the unlikely place of St. Petersburg, Russia, where in 2004 she spent a semester abroad studying Russian literature. There she had the opportunity to hear live jazz: “I had no idea songs could sound like that,” she recalls of that epiphany.
While in Russia, Sullivan put in serious listening time to recordings by Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, and Carmen McRae, and once she returned home she was already on her way to pursuing a career as a jazz vocalist. She relocated to Chicago in 2006 to study at the Bloom School of Jazz, and also began attending tenor saxophone legend Von Freeman’s weekly jam session at the New Apartment Lounge. She made a deep impression on Mike Allemana, Freeman’s longtime guitarist. “It’s so refreshing to find a young singer who knows these beautiful old songs,” he says.
Long before Sullivan quit her day job (at the University of Chicago Press) to devote herself full-time to singing. “When I worked up the nerve to ask Mike if he would do a gig with me,” she says, “I really felt like I was in over my head. But he said yes, it worked pretty well, and we ended up doing more gigs and eventually recording the album together.”
Come fall, Sullivan, now 29, will be starting the next chapter in her musical journey in Boston, where she plans to pursue a master’s degree at the New England Conservatory. “I’ll be studying with Dominique Eade, and then I’ll have a separate improvisation teacher,” she says. “I decided to go there because I want to be immersed in the intense musical learning environment they offer, as well as to improve as a musician and songwriter. Also, some great jazz musicians whom I really admire studied at NEC: Roberta Gambarini, Luciana Souza, Bill McHenry. And I can’t wait to be back on the East Coast!”
Rebecca Sullivan performed with Mike Allemana at a CD release show on Sunday 6/24, 8:00 pm, at Szold Hall (Old Town School of Folk Music), in Chicago.