Tag Archives: Joni Mitchell

ABIGAIL RICCARDS: HER HEART IS IN HER SONG

Two years ago, the pianist Michael Kanan invited me to hear and video his duo-recital with the singer Abigail Riccards, who was moving from New York to Chicago.  I had not heard of Abigail, but Michael’s endorsement of any artist is an unshakable statement of the artist’s deep value.  I was immediately impressed with Abby’s steady pace, her wise understanding of lyrics, her ability to evoke feelings in us with even the most familiar song, and her light-hearted swing.

Here they are with a prayerful ALL THE WAY: you’ll get the idea of what so struck me, and everyone else listening — the warmth, openness, intelligence, and empathy of Abigail’s singing.

I’ve been waiting for a CD that would show Abigail at her best, and EVERY LITTLE STAR is it.

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Co-produced by Jane Monheit and Abigail herself, it is a consistent delight.  Some of that is due to the musicians she asked to join her: Michael on piano, Peter Bernstein, guitar; Neal Miner, string bass; Eliot Zigmund, drums.  Some of it is due to the sprightly mix of songs Abigail has chosen: old favorites made new — I’VE TOLD EV’RY LITTLE STAR / SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN / IF I HAD YOU / HOW DEEP IS THE OCEAN / A SLEEPIN’ BEE / I DIDN’T KNOW ABOUT YOU / I CAN’T GIVE YOU ANYTHING BUT LOVE / SMILE / BYE BYE BLACKBIRD / WALTZ FOR DEBBY — and an original by Jeannie Tanner, ENDLESS JOY, and Joni Mitchell’s CIRCLE GAME (a duet for Abigail and Jane).

But this isn’t another program of a youthful singer offering up songs everyone knows in predictable ways.  You will quickly admire the easy, conversational way Abigail delivers the lyrics — words uttered as if the thoughts were hers — and her sweet improvisations, which shed light on the song rather than superimposing her ego on the composer’s.  Her generous spirit comes through in the substantial space she gives to Michael, Neal, Peter, and Eliot — so that when she returns after their instrumental interludes, it is as if she is now being carried triumphantly on their shoulders.

The tempos chosen are also deliciously insightful: ballads never drag and the quicker songs don’t rush.  Little arranging touches raise each performance well above the familiar: a wordless prelude to IF I HAD YOU; a nifty beginning to HOW DEEP IS THE OCEAN?; the way Abigail and Jane intertwine on CIRCLE GAME; the tender way she and the band approach I DIDN’T KNOW ABOUT YOU; the bouncing scat chorus with which she begins I CAN’T GIVE YOU ANYTHING BUT LOVE before shifting to another key. . .

My current favorites — instant classics! — are a Riccards / Kanan duet of SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN that begins with an slow rubato reading of the verse, then slowly tumbles into the chorus . . . where we hear singer and pianist discovering this 1929 classic as if for the first time.  I couldn’t immediately place where I had heard such intimacy before, then it hit me — the Fifties duets of Ruby Braff and Ellis Larkins.  The same qualities are evident throughout A SLEEPIN’ BEE, a Riccards / Kanan duet.  And in the Riccards / Bernstein SMILE, tender and rueful without being melancholic.

On the dozen songs that make up this varied program, Abigail Riccards proves herself not only a splendidly intuitive singer, but an artist who is the equal of the fine improvising instrumentalists around her.

Now, hearing this, you could choose to explore the banquet of live performances Abigail Riccards has on YouTube, and I wouldn’t blame you a bit.  But I would urge you to take the leap forward into purchasing this CD here.  All CD sales go to ArtStrides (a nonprofit program for special needs and financially disadvantaged children) so you benefit them by your generosity and you benefit yourself by having this music to listen to often.  

May your happiness increase!

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HILARY GARDNER SINGS: “THE GREAT CITY”

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In a city full of stirring, individualistic jazz singers, I invite you to welcome Hilary Gardner to the great stage.

This isn’t to presume her a new discovery — hardly!  But her debut CD is powerful, vivid, and emotionally varied.

She can sing, in short.

If you go immediately here (her homepage), two things will catch your attention.  One is the praise of Hilary written by Twyla Tharp — someone who knows music deeply.  The other is the sound of Hilary singing AUTUMN IN NEW YORK.

Delve a little deeper into her homepage (click on “music”) and you can hear more.

What I hear in THE GREAT CITY is a singer in full command of her lovely vocal instrument.  Hilary has a mature awareness of the bonding and bending that goes on between singer, melody, and words.  She offers us no melodrama, no vocal acrobatics; she honors the notes and the syllables, but she is not constrained by them.

She has chosen to retell the stories that the songs embody, each song a different story.  I hear an elegant restraint lit from within by feeling and understanding.  Hilary is wise enough to let the song carry her, wise enough to have absorbed great singers and instrumentalists, but especially wise enough to be herself.  No Billie, no Betty, no Sarah, no . . . .

The CD is a ripe pleasure — each track its own vignette, so the listener never feels bored by sameness or startled by rough jumps of subject and mood.  Hilary’s range is broad: there are the beautiful AUTUMN IN NEW YORK (verse and two choruses), WHEN THE WORLD WAS YOUNG, a jaunty BROOKLYN BRIDGE, and a swaying YOU CAME A LONG WAY FROM ST. LOUIS.

But her imagination doesn’t limit itself to “the Classics of the Great American Songbook,” and she reaches for Leonard Cohen, Nellie McKay, Tom Waits, and Joni Mitchell, making this CD an appealing anthology of short tales.

Hilary also has a deep awareness of the music’s foundations — without turning the disc into a repertory project.  So her accompanists (and I mean that in the best sense of the word) include Tatum Greenblatt, trumpet; Jason Marshall, tenor saxophone, Jon Cowherd, organ; Randy Napoleon, guitar; Elias Bailey, string bass; Jerome Jennings, drums, and the invaluable Ehud Asherie, piano.  Often the prevailing mood is neo-Basie.  Could that be wrong?

It’s a wonderful debut from an artist who offers us a great deal.  And I predict she will continue to delight us.

If you live in the tri-state area, the news is even more exciting.  Hilary and Ehud will be performing in duet at Smalls (183 West 10th Street, Greenwich Village, New York) on Sunday, April 7, beginning at 7:30.  Details here.  I am looking forward to it . . . please leave a few seats for me in the front row!

May your happiness increase.