The fine pianist, arranger, and scholar Keith Ingham left a message on my phone in July, saying that he had recorded a session with a singer who was very good and whom I would like. Keith hasn’t been wrong yet.
Her brand-new CD, accurately called HAPPY, is just out on CDBaby and will be on iTunes in a few days. It will soon be available in the tangible form (disc plus notes plus jewel box) that some of us love so well. Whatever form you find it in, it’s delightful.
Easy on the ear, as they used to say, but not Easy Listening.
The CDBaby link is http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/LisaMaxwell1
There, you can hear brief samples of each track — samples that should give you a clear idea of what a genuinely unaffected singer Lisa is.
Here are the notes I wrote for HAPPY, which will give some indication of how much I like the music she and her friends made:
When Keith Ingham says, “I have a singer I’d like you to hear,” you pay attention, because he has worked and recorded with Maxine Sullivan, Peggy Lee, Susannah McCorkle, and many more.
And then Lisa Maxwell’s voice comes out of the speakers and you bask in her exuberant confidence.
Lisa has all the virtues any singer could ask for. Her voice is appealing; her rhythm glides; her phrasing is all her own. She knows that each song is its own little playlet. Without dramatizing, she lets the song itself take center stage.
Unlike many singers who toy with or obliterate lyrics, Lisa deeply respects the words, “How I adore the brilliance of those writers, how their words form the picture! Then they’re intertwined with the notes that project the story into another dimension.” She sings with a deep intuitive awareness; the lyrics are not simply a series of syllables to get through. Her understanding of the music comes through in every bar: she isn’t tied to the notes, but she respects the composer’s intention while she rides the rhythm easily. Listen as she takes the twists and turns of I’LL TAKE ROMANCE, how nimbly she threads through SUNDAY IN NEW YORK.
Lisa’s gentle, floating approach creates vistas of sound and feeling. She doesn’t strain or emote, but gets inside each song and makes it glow. She sounds light-hearted, innocent, but the illusion of such artlessness can only be given us by a mature artist. Lisa has a sufficiently strong personality to simultaneously embrace the shade of Billie Holiday on YOU CAN’T LOSE A BROKEN HEART and to make her own way within the song.
She believes in the songs she chooses to sing, and a conversational candor animates MY HEART GOES WITH YOU and THIS IS ALWAYS. Throughout this disc, Lisa’s second choruses build on her first; she’s a low-key but effective improviser.
Much of the repertoire is familiar, but she gently makes these songs new, “I’ve done many of them many times, some less so, one (“My Heart Goes With You”) never. I loved the idea of being totally spontaneous in these sessions, along with Keith, and gave him complete freedom to arrange in any way he wanted. I wanted to be collaborative, to share in the purest sense, to go along for the ride. I want everyone to be “Happy” and everyone involved deserved their solos, their chances to shine. I love their work.”
And the playing is delightfully cohesive: Keith’s supportive lines, with never a superfluous note; Frank Tate’s deep woody sound and his splendid pulse; Al Gafa’s muted chimes, Steve Little’s padding brushwork; Ben Wittman’s just-right percussive seasonings.
Keith’s arrangements are full of irresistible pleasures: the interpolation of MANHATTAN in SUNDAY IN NEW YORK; the joyous swing of IT MIGHT AS WELL BE SPRING and BLUE MOON, the start of JUNE NIGHT that suggests that some JIVE AT FIVE at a campsite might have helped this summer evening be a memorable one.
SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME sounds so genuine in its sweet seriousness, with Keith’s piano underscoring every note. In Lisa’s unaffected delivery, the wistful message comes through with delicacy and strength.
Lisa says, “I have a long relationship with this song, going way back to my studying at HB Studios in the Eighties. Working on this song, I was torn to shreds by my teacher for “not feeling it.” I was never going to accept that. Keith and I did it in one take, at the end of our two day recording session.”
Another understated masterwork is her version of THE FOLKS WHO LIVE ON THE HILL. Hear how Lisa handles the bridge of that song, a passage many singers flatten. Her deep, gentle sincerity comes through – she’s smiling, not resigned, “This song is my personal “Over the Rainbow,” painting a picture of the most sublime, simple life. A perfect home, a perfect setting, a perfect relationship, involving children, and the acceptance of time passing, and things changing and remaining optimistic.”
The music from these sessions reminds me of a time, not so long ago, when jazz and “popular music” co-existed and drew strength from each other: when Joe Wilder and Milt Hinton and Barbra Streisand and Bobby Darin worked together – a golden time, taken for granted, but not forgotten. And we have Lisa Maxwell to thank for this happy marriage of classic American songs and swinging chamber music.
She refuses to show off, to be the Star. Rather, her singing takes us gently inside the lyrics and the melody, helping us hear afresh what they say and embody about our shared experiences. And by her very graceful approach to these songs, she wins our hearts.
It all comes back to Lisa’s title for this CD, “I think my approach is both happy in my delivery, which will, I hope, make people feel happy as they listen. Additionally, I am FINALLY happy with myself as a singer. It has been a long, determined road for me, all about wanting to get good, and “owning” my interpretations. I have been driven since I was eight years old, and I believe the voice, whether speaking or singing, is MY way to express my soul. Singing is a very physical experience for me, deep inside.”
To Lisa Maxwell, “Each tune is a story to me,” and HAPPY lets us hear and learn from a superb storyteller.