San Francisco Bay-area singer Karen Blixt makes her presence known in a major way on Spin This, delivering hip arrangements of classic standards and three cool originals. Having spent nearly ten years securing her Diva status on the West Coast jazz scene, it’s high time the rest of the world gets a listen.
Rather than playing it safe with a bunch of weary covers, Blixt and her producer/arranger Frank Martin boldly go where few contemporary artists have gone. Their bravery is proven by the political protest song and title track, "Spin This," but also by outrageously original instrumentation throughout.
Blixt grew up in New York state, refining her soulful singing in the church choir. She moved west to do the "journeyman" thing for many years; time which was well spent. She clearly learned the ropes, improvising and adapting her voice to each song in her repertoire in the same vein as her accompanists. And these are no amateur instumentalists, no, no. Even if you’ve never heard of Karen Blixt, you’ll dig the performances by Joey DeFrancesco (Philly-based B3 master who played with Miles Davis), percussionist Alejandro "Alex" Acuña (Weather Report, Ella Fitzgerald, Chick Corea, Paco De Lucia, Joni Mitchell, Lee Ritenour), vibrophonist Buddy Montgomery, pianist Russell Ferrante (Yellowjackets), drummer Will Kennedy, bassist Brian Bromberg, and reeds man Paul McCandless.
Blixt kicks off the set by resurrecting the Count Basie standard "Swingin’ the Blues." More than a great slogan, this song shows off her great tone, emotional expression, and daring harmonic approach. Blixt's scat singing is fun, but a bit rehearsed. Most likely, she pulls it off better with a live audience. The stripped-back arrangement is reminiscent of a 1950’s late-night organ trio in midtown Manhattan.
"Carefully Taught" from Rogers & Hammerstein’s South Pacific features a great rhythm section vibe: sultry string bass and deeply improvisational piano. The full ensemble passages ride the razor’s edge between free jazz and total chaos. Another Rogers & Hammerstein tune, "My Favorite Things" comes from Sound of Music of course, but equally familiar to jazz fans due to Coltrane’s reinvention. In a way, Blixt offers the best of both worlds: a well-trained female vocal on top of a bold jazz arrangement. Even before you recognize the song title, Troy Lampkins blows you away with an aggressive electric bass line. Drummer Will Kennedy and percussionist Alex Acuña lock it all up with an irresistible Latin groove.
It’s classic country meets cocktail hour on the Eddie Arnold standard "You Don’t Know Me." Check out Montgomery’s awesome vibes solo, supported by DeFrancesco’s percolating organ runs. Blixt interprets Cole Porter’s "Night and Day" with a strong cello & drums intro, joined by an imaginative piano/English Horn/Bass Clarinet arrangement. This particular ensemble is crazy cool, and sets a new high-water mark for a timeless tune. Reminder: this is Karen Blixt’s debut. We have every reason to believe there’s more where this came from.
As stated, "Spin This" is an unapologetic check on the current administration. In case you somehow missed that, the CD booklet even include printed lyrics for good measure. Political speeches aside, the music itself is an infectious, funky, spy-movie style bass, electric keys, and drums combo. "It’s Over Now (Well You Needn’t)" is the Thelonious Monk standard with words by Mike Ferro. This version, however, is unlike any you’ve ever heard, featuring only Blixt’s voice, two (count 'em, two) bass clarinets, and drums. The song is immediately followed by another short track called "Now It’s Over" which is a total clarinet freak-out.
"When You’re Smiling" is another classic, performed by Blixt and crew with all the enthusiasm made famous by Louis Armstrong and Jack Teagarden (but without the trumpet and trombone, of course.) It’s hard to find a fresh angle on such a beloved song, but Blixt pulls it off in spades. The hard-swinging downbeat and series of solos by Montgomery and DeFrancesco are hard to beat.
"Kitchen Blue" is another Martin & Blixt original, an enjoyable contemporary bop-infused small-group number. "Four" is a Miles Davis composition from his 1953 Prestige release Blue Haze. It features an up-tempo syncopated pulse, reinforced by an equally percussive organ part. This just might be Blixt’s "instant classic", as it is already garnering significant airplay and positive reviews. Mercer & VanHeussen’s "I Thought About You" began it’s life as a 1940 Benny Goodman hit, and has never really gone out of style. The tune is slowed-down here as a sultry, sexy, piano/vocal affair. The final original composition, "Something So True" is a culmination of sorts, featuring beautifully blended piano, bass, oboe, cello, and percussion. If nothing else, "Something So True" is one of Acuña’s finest moments on record.
It's still a little odd for jazz purists to hear singing on Miles and Coltrane numbers, but Blixt will win them over. Spin This is vocal jazz at its absolute finest, a shining achievement for a first-timer. In a production move befitting the heavyweight musicians, the project was recorded at the state-of-the-art Skywalker Studios. The HDCD quality is evident from start to finish. Highly recommended to all contemporary jazz fans.
If you live anywhere near the California bay-area, be sure to check out the album release parties scheduled for April 4, 2006 at the world-famous Yoshi’s Jazz House in Oakland.
-David Seymour is a jazz journalist in Saint Louis, Missouri, USA.