One of the many pleasures of the 2009 Jazz at Chautauqua was hearing Petra van Nuis and Andy Brown perform in front of a live audience, and I think the performance clips I’ve posted are solid evidence of their talents. I was hoping that the duo’s new CD would provide the same experience. Sometimes, of course, magic dissolves in the recording studio amid attempts to make recordings flawless.
But I need not have worried. Petra and Andy’s new CD is splendid.
Where to begin? (Once we’ve taken in the picture of the happy good-looking couple above . . . ) The songs on the CD are DESTINATION MOON, FAR AWAY PLACES, FROM THIS MOMENT ON, I’LL NEVER STOP LOVING YOU, CARAVAN, BORN TO BLOW THE BLUES, LET’S DO IT, BIM BOM (a solo for Andy), A COTTAGE FOR SALE, HOW LITTLE WE KNOW, INVITATION, ME MYSELF AND I, WITH A SONG IN MY HEART.
That song list speaks to a wide-ranging and discerning knowledge of the great songs of the last eighty or so years, a delight in itself: Porter, Ellington, Robison, Rodgers, and some delightful oddities. I know, for instance, that DESTINATION MOON is attached to a film of the same name and it even appears on a Lester Young live date c. 1950, but how many people have ever recorded it? (If you don’t know the song, imagine IN MY MERRY OLDSMOBILE updated to the era of fantasy rocket travel.) And BORN TO BLOW THE BLUES is associated with Marilyn Moore — but I haven’t heard it in ages. But this CD isn’t a high-toned musical archeology lesson, either.
Andy Brown, first: barring a half-dozen I admire, most jazz guitarists have become entranced, Narcissus staring at their own reflection in the shiny body of the Gibson or Macaferri, with the endless possibilities of their own technique. (You could blame Charlie Parker or Jimi Hendrix for this, but we’re here to celebrate.) So the notes pour out in what sound like endless streams; the fingers fly. Few guitarists seem to understand the value of space, of breathing pauses, of logical solo construction — with music delivered at an intelligible rate. Andy could cover the fingerboard, digits a blur, if he chose to. But he knows better. So his playing unfolds beautifully in its own song, no matter what tempo or what chords. He loves melody; he can swing any band several steps closer to Heaven with his chordal strum, and he is an absolutely flawless team-player, never fixated on the limelight. Accompanying a singer isn’t easy, either, but Andy is rather like a tactful, energized conversationalist at the party: he has things to tell us, he has comments to offer and support by the bucketful, but he never tries to outshine Petra.
And Petra? The first thing I noticed about Petra (before I had heard her in person) was the focus she brought to her songs. She isn’t one of these gospel whoopers; she hasn’t channelled Aretha or Billie; she isn’t a Broadway belter. All to the good, let me assure you. It means that she doesn’t overact, that she fits the word to the deed and the notes to the emotion, never smudging a lyric to appear hip, never landing in the wrong place. She can romp very happily (her enunciation is flawless, even in fourth gear) and she has a speaking presence. And before I had heard this CD, I would have praised Petra for avoiding the dramatic excesses I hear from so many singers. But then I heard her version of A COTTAGE FOR SALE, and I was just about stunned by its great dramatic range, mixing ruefulness, poignancy, and loss — without overacting so much as a hair. It was pure feeling, captured beautifully. I might never hear that song sung so heartbreakingly again.
Both Petra and Andy get first place in my imagined TALENT DESERVING COSMIC RECOGNITION category! Check out their websites — www.petrasings.com., and www.andybrownguitar.com — to find out such useful information as “May I hear some audio clips?” and, following quickly,”How can I buy these CDs?”
Psst! Want something for free? Go to Petra’s site and you’ll be able to see many more clips of this duo and other combinations . . . and you can listen to a four-tune demo CD of Petra with her RECESSION SEVEN, which is a sort of well-behaved small swing band (think Eddie Condon – Lee Wiley – Teddy Wilson – Mildred Bailey) including legendary Chicagoans Kim Cusack and Russ Phillips.