Dawn Lambeth has been one of my favorite singers for more than fifteen years now. I’d never heard of her (such is the East Coast / West Coast divide in Jazz America) until I was asked to review her CD, MIDNIGHT BLUE, for the much-missed Mississippi Rag, and I was astonished. Her lovely voice, her warm phrasing, her love of the melody, her understanding of the lyrics — all splendidly touching. She swings; she embodies the great traditions but sounds like herself, understated and passionate at the same time.
And I could marvel at her work in a variety of contexts at the most recent Redwood Coast Music Festival. Here she is with Dave Stuckey and the Hot House Gang: Dave, guitar, vocals, and fun; Marc Caparone, cornet; Nate Ketner, Jonathan Doyle, reeds; Carl Sonny Leyland, piano; Katie Cavera, string bass; Josh Collazo, drums.
Many people feel that singing isn’t, after all, so difficult. You learn a song by listening to recordings, perhaps you ask friends who play what key you are singing in, you hope to remember the lyrics and to not hang on to the mike stand too ostentatiously, the pianist plays four bars, you open your mouth — and look, ma, I’m singing! Nice clothing, good hair — also essential.
But this art is so much more complex, and it rests on the dual mastery of the song (how to get from one note to another with grace and personality, and then, how to courageously improvise and land well) and the lyrics (what do those words actually mean? what’s “the story” here? where should I take a breath?) and the deeper understanding of the emotions a song is meant to stir. I could be very wrong here, but an eighteen-year old might not sing THANKS FOR THE MEMORY with the deep rueful sensitivity that the song requires, in the same way that same youthful striver might not deeply understand the feelings of a literary character.
And there’s an even more difficult art — drama without acting — or how to make a group of people in a large hall, through your voice and gesture sent through a microphone, feel the nuances that composer, lyricist, and singer must convey.
I write this perhaps discouraging prelude to simply say that Dawn Lambeth not only knows how to do these rare things, but she embodies the art of communicating information and feeling while the notes roll on. We know, in the song I am about to present here, the joy of past experience and the ruefulness that the experiences are past.
THESE FOOLISH THINGS, by Jack Strachey and Eric Maschwitz (and perhaps Harry Link), has been sung often since its emergence in 1935, and inexperienced singers can make the melody a series of predictable steps, the lyrics a shopping list of sentimental fragments of memory. It has been sung so often that in the wrong hands, its sharp edges have been blurred. But Dawn reaches into the song, without overacting, and offers us the novella of love unattained but recalled that it really is. Hear her poignant variations on “You conquered me!” and know what this rare art truly is.
So moving. Thank you so much, Dawn and friends, for these tender, candid moments.
May your happiness increase!