As I am wont to do, when I haven’t heard of an artist I often listen before reading anything about them, allowing myself to be completely unbiased. Such was the case with Susan May’s new release Black Coffee, a mainstream jazz vocal offering straight out of the Great American Songbooks.
The voice was the first thing I noticed, and for good reason. It’s full-bodied, clean, and possesses an unusual timbre, which at one moment has a gin-soaked texture and the next is smooth as silk. I next noted the cadre of seasoned players she’s supported by, lead by venerable pianist/arranger Bobby Schiff.
It was immediately evident to my ear that in spite of her mature voice, May is a young talent. I couldn’t have been more surprised than to discover what an understatement that was, for this is the performance of a fourteen year old girl. There’s a deliberateness and over-schooled element in her delivery, but that in no way takes anything away from her astounding vocal maturity.
Within these eleven classic selections, you’ll find gems such as Rogers & Hart’s "With a Song in my Heart," where May’s emotional performance is embellished by the stunning trumpet of Bobby Lewis. The blues ballad "Since I Fell For You" is fattened by the guitar of Scott Reid, nailing the blues idiom down for the beefy vocal line. Her vocal dexterity gets a workout on Ronnell’s "Willow Weep For Me", which she attacks it with strength and confidence, and "The Sweetheart Tree," one of Mancini’s delights, offers the listener to hear the singer in a more adult contemporary genre, and one that suits her to a tee.
There are hits and misses on this recording, and occasionally May is lead into territory that is a little over her head, but the overall approach is thoughtful and considered. There’s room for the vocalist to breathe with her long notes bringing a lyricism to the material, but the stiffness and deliberation often take one out of the jazz realm, making the pop oriented material the more successful. All in all this is an impressive recording for such a young performer, and a strong statement of the bright future ahead for May.
Cindy McLeod, www.jazzelements.com