If there was any doubt about the validity of placing Denise Donatelli in the upper echelon of present day female jazz vocalists, then
“When Lights Are Low” will surely dispel any such trepidation.
Joined again by the talented Geoff Keezer, who played on and arranged her last album, the impressive
“What Lies Within”, Ms. Donatelli sings with an assured confidence and makes it look easy. Her warm and inviting voice simply lures you in like a Venus flytrap and never lets you go. It is hard to determine if it is Keezer or Donatelli who shrewdly choose material that is so suitable to her voice. It is probably a collaborative effort, but the material is refreshingly varied.
Right from the start, she breaks out with a classic out of the American Songbook, Julie Styne’s “It’s You or No One”which is delivered in a swinging yet contemporary way, by the outstanding rhythm section of Keezer, Hamilton Price and Jon Wikan. The polish and tone of Donatelli’s delivery reminds me of a young Nancy Wilson in her prime, a real delight. Wikan and Keezer interchange with a series of jagged retorts. Not to be outdone Donatelli follows them in a staccato scat that is sinewy and precise.
She follows this with a decidedly orchestrated version of Billie Holiday’s “Don’t Explain” that defies any pretense of convention, A wonderfully evocative flugelhorn solo by Ingrid Jensen is a highlight of the production.
Benny Carter’s “When Lights Are Low” is sung in a deceptively carefree, almost cavalier way. Donatelli shows off a fearless voice that parries easily off Keezer’s piano and tenorman Ron Blake’s solo saxophone, never missing a beat or straying off key .
Not to be hamstrung by standards, Donatelli takes a contemporary little gem like Sting’s
“ Big Lie, Small World” and moves us through the potent, introspective lyrics in a sensuously subdued approach over a bossa beat. I am reminded of the understated tone of a storyteller like Michael Franks. Keezer plays his ass off in flurry of Latin inspired crescendos as Wikan and Price drive him to the coda.
The album has an abundance of fine performances that alternate between sensitive ballads to driving swingers. There are no disappointments. Listen to her poignant take on “Why Did I Choose You”, she knows how to bring emotion to a song in way that is not contrived or artificial. On Lorenzo Hart’s “ I Wish I Were in Love Again” the interplay between her voice, Keezer’s piano and Price’s bass is especially tasty. The tight band, including Donatelli, play together like a unified entity instead of a backing band for a lead vocalist.
The intimate and sensuous Ivan Lins “Cantor Da Noite” features a nice soprano solo by Ron Blake but is otherwise a bit overproduced for my taste.
The playful samba based “The Telephone Song”showcases Donatelli’s vocal flexibility with challenging, quick paced lyrics over Peter Spragues’ breezy guitar and Wikan’s pandeiro.
The album ends with the bouncy and acrobatic tune by Cedar Walton , “Enchantment” alternativevly known as “Firm Roots”, and Donatelli demonstrates a marvelous affinity for the song’s ebullient feel.
With an ever-growing body of fine work, Denise Donatelli is proving she is a true contender for jazz female vocalist of the year.
Recorded: Spragueland Studios, Encinitas, CA 2010
Musicians: Denise Donatelli (vocals); Geofrey Keezer (musical director, arrangements and keyboards); Hamilton Price (bass) Jon Wikan (drums) on all tracks; Peter Sprague (guitar on tracks all tracks except 5 & 8) ; Ingrid Jensen ( flugelhorn on track 2); Susan Wulff (double bass on track 2 & 7); Giovanna Clayton(cello on track 2 & 7);
Roland Kato, Alma Lisa Fernandez and Mathew Duckles (violas on track 2& 7); Ron Blake (tenor on tracks 3 & 7);
Phil O’Connor (bass clarinet on track 4 & 10); Julia Dollison and Kerry Marsh (background vocals on tracks 4, 8 & 10)