Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Vocal CD of the Month - "Anna Mjoll: Shadow of Your Smile"

Vocal CD of the Month
Anna Mjöll: "Shadow of Your Smile" (Tónaljón Records) 2009

Someone recently referred to Anna's new CD, recorded in California and mixed in Reykjavik, as "a must have by the sweetest woman and singer this side of Iceland!"
I must add: a must have by the sweetest voice in the current jazz scene. Period.

"Shadow..." features the LA-based Icelandic jazz diva surrounded by an all-star band led by her lucky arranger/producer/guitarist Ólafur Gaukur: drummers Vinnie Colaiuta (the current drummer's drummer all over the world) & John "JR" Robinson (Quincy Jones' favorite drummer ever, with Michael Jackson's "Thriller" on his impressive discography), bassists Dave Carpenter & Neil Stubenhaus, keyboardist Don Grusin and percussionist Luis Conte, whom I first met when he was playing on Madonna's "Blond Ambition" tour. In some tracks - "I Get A Kick Out of You", "C'est Si Bon" and "Fever" -, such dream-team is joined by a horn section comprised of Gary Grant (trumpet), Ray Herman (saxophones) and Arturo Velasco (trombone).

After repeated listenings, "Shadow..." evokes me memories of Peggy Lee, Astrud Gilberto and specially Blossom Dearie. Actually, sometimes, Anna sounds like the missing link between Bjork and the late Dearie. Of course I'm not talking (nor I wasn't thinking) about Bjork's screams in the heavy techno aesthetic, but referring to her gentle and creative reading of "Like Someone In Love" from her "Debut" album. Anyway, despite all these mentioned references echoing on my mind, Anna Mjoll sounds like her own woman, capable to enchant and fascinate the listener with highly personal interpretations of top-class songs. Because there's a "cry" on her voice. Like on Hendrix's guitar or Parker's alto. A "cry" that makes the whole difference between her and dozens of other "traditional" jazz female singers with silky voices but no creativity.

The first test is the dazzling opening track, a groovy take on Cole Porter's "I Get A Kick Out of You." Propelled by Stubbenhaus's pumping electric bass and Robinson's infallible drums, Anna performs the miracle of making the great (but too much often recorded in predictable ways) standard sound fresh and with a new glamour, perpetuating the best performance I've heard since Helen Merrill's version. The rhythm section changes on Johnny Mandel's classic "The Shadow of Your Smile," but once again Anna's approach is unique and amazing, intertwined with Ólafur Gaukur's 12-string acoustic guitar a la Luiz Bonfa.

She knows how to caress a melody and seduce the listener, like happens throughout the album. Another highlight, "Fever," firstly made famous by Peggy Lee and later revived by Madonna, is a singing lesson in the sense of how to make each and every word sound with the proper impact and feeling. Dave Carpenter is on the acoustic bass, reminding me of Bebeto Castilho's recording with Norma Bengell that became a dancefloor hit in Europe in the acid-jazz scene of the 90s.

Don Grusin's piano floats in perfect empathy with Anna's milky vocals on Burt Bacharach's "The Look of Love." Don't lose your time trying to compare her with Dionne Warwick or Diana Krall. Mjoll's once again sounds ultra-peculiar.

A latin-tinged arrangement of the French classic "C'est Si Bon" follows, featuring the horn section and Conte on percussion. Anna's sounds, to use French words, "coquette et sensuel." A beautiful original by Gaukur, "Saman Bú Og Ég" (the composer solos on the electric guitar while backing himself on the 12-string acoustic guitar), and two Antonio Carlos Jobim tunes complete the repertoire. Instead of treating "How Insensitive" ("Insensatez" with Norman Gimbel's English lyrics) as a slow bossa-ballad, as everybody usually does, Anna makes it more danceable, adding a new latin spice accentuated by Conte's bongos. The arangements includes a lovely guitar-wordless vocal solo section. Her phrasing would make Jobim proud.

A surprising mood also envolves "Água de Beber," sung in Portuguese, with keyboard and guitar solos. Both Jobim songs, plus the title track, also appear as bonus tracks on Icelandic versions written by the multi-talented Gaukur.

"Shadow of Your Smile" is by far one of the best vocal jazz releases of 2009. Gifted with an abysmal potential, no one can accuse Anna Mjoll's of musical compliance. This gorgeous girl (all the great booklet pics were shot on location in Iceland by Ess) knows how to take chances.

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