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Bye-bye Blackbird by Kevyn Lettau

A recording artist since the early 90s, Kevyn Lettau has been often faulted by jazz critics for being too safe, too smooth, and too easy on the ears. Truth is, with a catalogue that attests to these and other facts, it would be hard to classify her as anything but a smooth jazz/R&B artist, and with years of play on smooth NAC radio, programmers seem to agree. However, the releasing label of Lettau’s current disc is the Manchester Craftsman’s Guild, which states as its mission is to "preserve, present and promote jazz" and as such, Lettau’s current offering seems somewhat in conflict with that mandate.

While the play list would indicate jazz-accessibility, and the material is culled from the American Popular Songbook, the approach is neo-latin smooth jazz, both in texture and tone. With arrangements and occasional guitar by Dori Caymmi, a tight rhythm section backs the proceedings, accompanied by studio percussion master Paulinho Da Costa on some tracks, and a large string section on others.

Opening with a redundant latin-rhythm-section+strings rendition of "I’ve Got You Under My Skin" Lettau goes squarely after Diana Krall’s market niche, albeit a bit late in the game. When Krall released her own 1998 GRP recording of the song, the idea to revive the Sinatra+Jobim sound was still fresh. Now unfortunately, seven years later, this style has become as dated as it did the first time around, when artists such as Andy Williams went on to record albums of light orchestral bossa nova, and elevators and dentists offices everywhere were permeated with its "Chinese water torture" effect.

The more successful performances on this disc deviate from the formulaic orchestral approach. Other latin rhythmic devices and better song choices do much to play up what could have been an innovative program for the artist. Ellington’s "Love You Madly" is the most exciting track here, the artist sounding as though she is singing live, improvising even, rather than remaining ambivalent or staying safe. Following that is a stunning rendition of Coleman and Leigh’s "It Amazes Me" (a song introduced and best sung by a woman) on which Lettau again sounds spontaneous, sensitive and emotive.

However, the vast majority of these performances sound processed and pat. Sumptuously engineered by pop über-producer Bill Schnee, the recordings are wrapped in a huge layer of expensive-sounding reverb that distances the listener from the vitality of the music as played by the instrumentalists in-studio. Lettau’s vocal itself (as is often the case on this kind of recording) is for the most part, tuned and processed quite noticeably. I don’t know what benefit producers believe they gain when doing this. Save for the obvious realignment of pitch, there is no enhancement on an artistic level provided for a listener to hear a voice bumped into place electronically, with most sensitivity removed in the process.

Kevyn Lettau is a singer who has often shown glimmers of the artistic possibilities that lie beneath, but her tendency to lean toward formulaic pop music and production techniques make her less intriguing to a jazz audience, one that demands more spontaneity and truth in a final product. I think this album (though slick, expensively produced, and in keeping with her back catalogue) indicates that Kevyn Lettau is someone I might rather hear live. Existing Lettau fans will love it.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Kevyn Lettau
  • CD Title: Bye-bye Blackbird
  • Genre: Jazz Vocals
  • Year Released: 2005
  • Record Label: MCG Jazz
  • Rating: Three Stars
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