Yolanda Duke,
Te Llevo Bajo La Piel
(Amigos Music, 2014)

Jeremy Fox,
With Love
( Jazzbill Records, 2014)

Nancy Goudinaki,
I Wanna Be Your Star
(independent, 2014)

The best thing about the Great American Songbook is its flexibility. The songs comprising it can be transposed into any style, from Rod Stewart soft rock to Bernadette Peters Broadway to Christine Ebersole cabaret to the Bunny Berigan and Benny Goodman big band jazz to Chico Hamilton bop, all without losing their integrity. Here we have three artists taking these songs in very different directions, each making the songs their own in their own way.

Pianist Jeremy Fox has led vocal jazz camps for years, discovering and teaching some of the best new jazz singers around. For his CD With Love, he has decided to approach the American songbook by assigning different songs to different singers, matching the right song with the right vocalist. The chosen singers include Kevin Mahagony, Kate McGarry, Peter Eldridge, Lauren Kinham, Sunny Wilkinson, Derek Fawcett and Kate Reid, among others, and Fox has given each the song he felt fitted him or her best. For each song and singer, he has provided a new arrangement, so the music tracks range from big band jazz to string quartets, from piano trios to small combos.

With all of this variation going on, with all of this shifting from track to track, you would think the album would be all over the place -- after all, we have scatting, balladry and swing from track to track -- but even as the arrangements and the approaches vary, the album is stylistically unified by the fact that all of the songs emanate from the same place and all are excellently performed.

With I Wanna Be Your Star, Nancy Goudinaki takes a different approach. Originally from Greece and trained first in Greek music, classical guitarist and vocalist Goudinaki calls her "ah ha" moment the fist time she heard Ella Fitzgerald. She came to the United States to study jazz singing and now performs regularly in the New York area.

This is her first album and, yes, the Ella influence can be felt in it, which is not a bad thing as long as the singer remains essentially herself, which Goudinaki does. Her approach to the songbook is simple and straightforward: she does jazz interpretations with a small combo backing her, a quartet consisting of piano, bass, tenor sax and drums. Occasionally, as on the bossa nova-inflected "Birds of Paradise," she brings in a guest percussionist, but mostly she keeps it basic -- basic but swinging. She doesn't take many risks but what she does, she does very well indeed.

Which brings us to Yolanda Duke. A Latin singer, she sang with Tito Puente's band in the 1990s and now, after that giant musician's death, performs with the Tito Puente Orchestra. For her, the key to the Great American Songbook is to take it into another language; these are Spanish interpretations, and the very fact that a monolinguistic listener like me knows the tunes but can't recognize the lyrics makes them fresh and new again.

Duke is a fine singer and knows her way around these songs. She brings out the soul in them and does not so much make them her own as she renders them new. Backed by the Tito Puente Orchestra, with Arthur Sandoval playing trumpet solos, Yolanda Duke makes her album, Te Llevo Bajo La Piel, one big listening pleasure.

Listening to these three albums leads me to conclude that the Great American Songbook is in fine shape. Rather than a bunch of tired chestnuts, these songs remain open to becoming new again through fresh treatments and imaginative reinterpretations. It's like seeing a new production of Hamlet. If the production isn't stifled by a sense of reverence and slavish devotion to tradition, if it is, in Ezra Pound's famous phrase, made new, then it is able to thrill new generations. And a few geezers like me.

music review by
Michael Scott Cain

19 July 2014

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