2015’s “Send One Your Love” is a recording of arrangements by the members of the New West Guitar Group that features five of their favorite jazz vocalists telling stories about the “highs and lows of love” through a mixture of traditional and contemporary standards. Gretchen Parlato, Becca Stevens, Peter Eldridge, Sara Gazarek, and Tierney Sutton lend their considerable talents to this ambitious and yet very accessible music. New West consists of John Storie, Perry Smith, and on this recording Jeff Stein.
Gretchen Parlato lends her pleasantly breathy and yet lyrically solid sound to Jeff Stein’s distinctive arrangement of Stevie Wonder’s “Send One Your Love.” It is easy to hear why this became the title track. It has an engaging, catchy lilt, with hand claps adding effective percussion, and is a reminder that Stevie Wonder is one of our greatest composers of melodies. Parlato also sings on Perry Smith’s arrangement of “Like Someone In Love.” Gretchen has a well earned reputation for understanding that less is more. She sings with the cool, soft quality of an early morning mist, and yet there is a depth of emotional range to everything she does. Her flawless technique is in full display and yet never obtrusive – it serves the music.
Becca Stevens is probably the singer I was least familiar with. She has a throaty, slightly burnished sound that at times is reminiscent of Carly Simon at her best, but with more nuance and subtlety. She does a superb job with the arrangement by Jeff Stein on “Detour Ahead,” and her voice is perfectly suited to Storie’s arrangement of the haunting “Waltz No. 1” by the late Elliott Smith. This moody, evocative composition with Becca’s vocal and Storie’s arrangement has a heart achingly plaintive quality, and in a record filled with emotionally realized gems, it is a standout.
Peter Eldridge, co-founder of the double Grammy winning New York Voices, sing’s John Storie’s arrangement of Joni Mitchell’s “Black Crow.” He has a natural, urbane quality to his smooth voice, and a true musician’s phrasing. Smith’s arrangement of “My Ship” has a nice medium tempo which is a refreshing change from the usual ballad version. Eldridge connects completely with the approach and improvises expertly. The guitar accompaniment percolates along making it feel like it is the first time I’ve heard this Kurt Weill chestnut. This is the sign of a superior arrangement and performances by both Eldridge and Smith.
Anybody who knows me knows that I am a Gazarite. I have been watching Sara Gazarek develop over the years and emerge as one of our most important singers. My admiration for her extends beyond how she comports herself onstage. I’ve had the pleasure of booking her a few times and she handles the preparation for the gig and the business of singing with as much intelligence, grace and good humor as she displays in her remarkably clear and melodious voice. Once again, she does not disappoint on Smith’s arrangement of “I Fall In Love Too Easily” and the closing track, Stein’s arrangement of James Taylor’s “The Secret of Life.” All five of these singers are comfortable in pop and jazz genres, and perhaps Gazarek and Stevens are the most adaptable. Sara delivers perfectly realized performances of both songs, adding jazz inspired melodic variations that are never forced or trite.
Tierney Sutton lends her sure footed musicianship to Smith’s romping arrangement of the Cole Porter standard “You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To.” She and Smith pair for a vocalese section that rivals anything Paul and Mary Ford ever did (high praise indeed.) This is not material for a faint hearted neophyte vocalist. Tierney has the chops and the track is pure joy. (I heard Sara Gazarek perform the arrangement recently at Descanso Gardens. This chart is a winner.) Tierney displays her superb story telling ability on John Storie’s lovely arrangement of Randy Newman’s “When She Loved Me.” She is too savvy and sophisticated to change the pronoun from “she” to “he.” In their hands this song becomes an ode to universal love, the love between a daughter and her mother, or a sister, or the love of friends or lovers.
This record is beautifully produced by New West and was engineered as well as co-produced by Paul Tavener. Many of the arrangements make very effective use of key changes to shift thought and mood. (An excellent example is the modulation that sets up Storie’s beautiful solo on “When She Loved Me.” It gives me chills every time I hear it.) The guitarists realize the percussive qualities of their instruments to add even more depth and color to the tapestry. Several of the tracks incorporate vocal humming which is used sparingly and is never contrived. Some vocal doubling is also used to excellent effect. The one thing all five of these accomplished singers have in common is an easy, natural approach that needs no studio effects or manipulation. The entire project breathes and moves with an organic, heartfelt honesty.
For a singer nerd like me, the chance to hear five distinguished vocalists in one package is a thrill. The members of the New West Guitar Group chose and arranged each song specifically for each singer. The results are something quite special. Lucky singers. Lucky New West Guitar Group. Lucky me…..I’ll be listening to this one again and again.
Pictured: Sara Gazarek, one of the five outstanding vocalists featured on 2015’s “Send One Your Love” performs recently at the 2016 Descanso Gardens Music on the Main series with the New West Guitar Group (Will Brahm replaces Jeff Stein in this iteration.)