Thursday, May 16, 2013

Review: Beth Duncan - Comes The Fall

The jazz music genre is one of those areas where, for a vocalist at least, there’s no place to hide. While singers of other styles, whether it be rock, pop, country, among others, may manage to “get by” with subpar vocal deliveries and the help of digital helps like Auto Tune and ProTools. Yet, in jazz, where the vocals manage to be front and center, oftentimes taking on an instrumental quality in and of themselves, there’s no room to run. And thankfully, in the case of rising jazz artist, Beth Duncan, there’s no need to.

Duncan tracks her lifetime love of jazz music to her childhood where she recalls, “As a little kid, my older brother loved jazz. He painted his room black, had bongos, and I would hear Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis, Stan Getz, and Mel Tormé wafting out of his room,” she says laughing. “That music from down the hall led me to the path I am meant to be on.”

And, judging by the sound of her latest recording, Comes the Fall, that’s exactly where she needs to be.

Comes the Fall was tracked by producer/engineer, Guy Kowarsh, who challenged the artist, pushing her to “add nuances and layers to her recordings, encouraging her to do vocal harmonies,” wrapping them around an “orchestral approach within a lean bass, drums, guitar, and vocal format.” Performing original arrangements written by composer Martine Tabilio, as well as some classic covers, Duncan found herself joined by a set of world class musicians to complete her vision. Among them were her longtime guitarist, Steve Homan, Mike McMullen on both flute and tenor saxophone, bassist Bill Douglass, trumpeters Frankie Bailey and Steve Roach, and percussionists Babatunde Lea and Brian Kendrick, with some assistance from producer Kowarsh as well. The result is a strong, mature record that will satisfy jazz fans from all walks of life.

The title track is a nice look into Duncan’s abilities, surrounded by a warm arrangement of hushed drums, Homan’s great guitar, and McMullen’s tenor sax fill as she sings were way home, harmonizing with herself perfectly and delivering a perfect start to the record. “Wish I May” keeps the good going with Homan taking the guitar solo to nice levels while Duncan adds a playful vocal delivery while “How High the Moon” uses percussion to move things forward.

“I’m On a Cloud” is a track that would make Ron Burgundy smile, with its sublime use of jazz flute while Duncan’s delivery of the classic, “Moon River,” is stark and compelling. It takes a listen or two to get adjusted to it but it works while “Quiet Nights” taps into some Latin roots, letting the artist strut her stuff a little bit more.

“No Rhyme or Reason” is a moody affair, somber notes holding sway early before the album’s real opus, a rearrangement of Coltrane’s “Giant Steps,” by guitarist Steve Homan, is presented. Duncan works hard and nails it on this most difficult work. “There wasn’t a lot of room for bending notes, I had to just purely sing,” Duncan says.

And singing is what she does best, finishing the final tracks just as heartily as she tackled the first. On “Almost Like Being in Love,” Homan continues to show his supreme prowess on guitar while Duncan skits and scats beautifully on the pleasantly invigorating, “Simple Life.” “Embraceable You” finds the artist teaming only with Bill Douglass’ bass and delivering a sultry song as “Wish Me a Rainbow” close things out with a jazz-styled jam, all the instruments getting their due and Duncan showcasing her range and skills further.

While jazz may not be everyone’s cup of tea, for those open and hungry for it, Beth Duncan is an artist who has plenty to give. Comes the Fall offers skillful arrangements and great musicianship, a nice blend of original songs and covers, and, ultimately, Duncan herself who stands poised to take the next step into jazz stardom.

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