Laughing Horse Records Lhr 1011

Lisa Sokolov has her nerve.

The New York-based singer, teacher and music therapist proves on this exceptional CD that’s she’s unafraid to tackle nearly any song. Backed by a crack rhythm team she runs through a dozen selections ranging from the most obscure originals to the most commonplace standards. In the majority of cases, she manages to create singular versions that stand on their own as improv art songs.

Almost as much an actor as a vocalist, Sokolov uses her expressive voice and mannerisms to make over such hackneyed and overdone standards as “For All We Know” and “Oh, What A Beautiful Morning”, exposing their inner workings. Taken heart-breakingly slow, backed by John DiMartino busy piano playing she emphasizes the underlying sentiments of the former more than its familiar lyrics. Then with her own spare piano accompaniment, she transforms the later into a deadly serious cry of triumph, helped immeasurably by scrupulously accented syllables and vocal melisma.

Classically trained as a pianist and vocalist, Sokolov adopted improvised music after hearing John Coltrane, and later studied at Vermont’s Bennington College with Coltrane’s bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Milford Graves. Director of The Institute for Embodied VoiceWork, Sokolov’s day job is training postgraduate music therapists. She has been collaborating with bassist William Parker since she arrived in New York in 1977 — her overdubbed, a cappella performance of his “Hopefully” balances its gospel and work song origins here — and has performed to great acclaim with Cecil Taylor’s orchestra and interpreting the songs of drummer Gerry Hemingway.

One of the most versatile percussionists in music, Hemingway repays the favor here. The other musicians on side are Cameron Brown — who knows a thing or two about vocal accompaniment, having worked with Shelia Jordan — and DiMartino, who was music director for vocalists Jon Hendricks and Billy Eckstine and has played straightahead and Latin Jazz with such masters as guitarist Kenny Burrell.

Brown’s sensitivity is given a workout on “You Do Something To Me”. Treated as a finger-snapping rhythm tune, Sokolov uses the turnaround to quicken the tempo even more, making her point through held notes and unselfconscious scat.

She isn’t a retro re-creator, imprisoned within the Great American Songbook like some more popular and younger vocalists, though. Built on fragmented bass lines, high intensity piano and irregular drum rolls, her own “Hard being Human”, recorded live at Parker’s Vision Festival, is rife with passion and excitement. Sometimes slipping into a female baritone range, elsewhere exhibiting Annie Ross-like throat warbling, her theatrical sense invests the repetitive words and descending theme statement with unwavering theatrics. DiMartino’s right-handed beats and Hemingway’s subtle rolls and flams add to the mood.

Even more triumphantly she makes her own two songs wedded to icons of the 1960s: Aretha Franklin’s “Chain of Fools” and Laura Nyro’s “And When I Die”. With only her own highly syncopated piano accompaniment on the later, she vocally testifies, transfiguring the Blood, Sweat & Tears hit into near gospel. With keyboard work emphasizing cascading arpeggios, she adds her own lyrics to Nyro’s, in the process turning the tune into a hymn to childbirth, emphasizing its innate religiosity.

Powerful glossolalia, scatted rhythmic vocalese and near-breathless emotionalism help to reassemble the Queen of Soul’s anthem. Snapping off word variations backed by powerful stopping from Brown, the clink of Hemingway’s cymbals and key clipping from DiMartino, she builds up to an intense stop-time section. Phrasing like an instrumentalist, Sokolov repeats, stretches and accentuates different words in the “Fools” verse to re-imagine the familiar tune.

PRESENCE isn’t completely perfect however. When she imputes overly theatrical interpretations to musical poetry on a couple of tracks and produces a breathy reading of Jacques Brel’s anti-war waltz “Sons Of”, the effect is off-putting. Why bother recreating art songs, when her rhythmic improvisations are art enough in themselves?

Because of her nerve, Sokolov has produced a noteworthy session, and one that deserves to be heard by all fans of jazz singing, most especially those disappointed with the present-day, so-called divas.

Sokolov is no jazz diva — just an exceptional improviser.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Presence 2. Hopefully 3. Oh, What A Beautiful Morning 4. You Do Something To Me 5. Chain of Fools 6. Hard being Human 7. Sons Of 8. Water Lillies 9. And When I Die 10. As It Is 11. For All We Know 12. Home On The Range

Personnel: Lisa Sokolov (vocals and piano); John DiMartino (piano); Cameron Brown (bass); Gerry Hemingway (drums)