To say vocalist/pianist and Cleveland native, now New York transplant, Tom Lellis is significantly influenced by Mark Murphy would perhaps be the understatement of the month. Like Murphy, Lellis can sing a line in a unique manner that takes notice of the lyrics intent yet infuses it with a phrasing that is warm and syrupy. His smooth lines glide effortlessly in cool glissandi from note to note with vocal tones that epitomize hipness. If Lellis and Murphy aren’t jazz singers then there is no such thing.
On this recording Lellis focuses on music done within a Brazilian framework, whether the tunes are actually from a Brazilian background or not. In order to emphasize the samba and tranquil Latin tinges, either already within the music or placed there by Lellis and his musicians, the singer is careful to make sure there are few short notes or over-emphasized punctuations. The entire disc is infused with a spirit of smoothly floating lines that culminate in relaxed climaxes through the use of misplaced accents and strong instrumental ensemble support.
Whether singing in Portuguese or English, Lellis’ diction is never trite or showy. Capturing the spirit and history of the music is a difficult thing to do, but Lellis’ homage and respect is evident with every turn of his non-harmonic half-step-below tonal glissandi that slide up into the desired note with just the right amount of delay. While this technique is, at times, overused, it thoroughly demonstrates why he is a musical survivor in a genre that chews up singers faster than garage bands at high school dances. Few singers can pull off his types of vocal affectations within musical phrases and make them sound unique and sincere almost every time.
The disc opens with a strong rendition of Beyond The Sea. Lellis starts with some exquisite vocalise setting the tone for his work to come. He is expressive yet cool and showcases his impeccable intonation in multi-note syllabic glides as he plays around and through the strong rhythm section, powerfully led on this cut by David Kikoski on piano. Once Lellis launches into the melody he truly takes no prisoners. Lellis lays out the melody in no uncertain terms and then uses the initial expectations he sets by incorporating full-bodied vocal gestures into the remainder of the tune - even including some quotes from The Wizard of Oz. Kikoski and his rhythm-mates kick some major butt behind the lead and give a first-class clinic in how jazz is all about listening to your band-mates and then playing off of the ideas they present.
While the rest of the disc never equals the power of the opening cut, that doesn’t mean there aren’t exciting moments. From Tom To Tom, composed by Lellis and guitarist/vocalist Toninho Horta as a tribute to "Tom" Jobim, captures the flavor and subtleties of samba in a masterful manner that points directly to the honorees’ use of space, time and feel. Another standout is Be My Love. Here Lellis, with just percussion and guitar accompaniment, simply and eloquently sets out phrase after phrase of sublime splendor. Never doing too much to overpower the accompaniment, Lellis carefully matches the intertwining of the instrumental duet with his trademark misplaced accents and vocal glissandi in perfect sympathy with the ensemble’s serene feel.
The problems with this disc lie in the sameness that eventually takes over the recording as the disc plays on. For example, the tempos tend to be basically all medium. While Lellis works to keep the disc lively with a variety of instrumental backdrops, they still are just variants on the make up of a rhythm section. The lone use of a wind instrument other than vocals, Jeremy Steig’s fine flute playing on Keeper Of The Flame, comes too late on the disc, cut 12, and doesn’t do enough to change the overall tone.
The above problems aside, Southern Exposure is still worthy. Lellis is an excellent musician who deserves wider recognition. He can turn a phrase with the best of them and never do it the same way twice - a unique quality in the sameness which is showcased in many of the more popular "jazz" singers of today. Even with the Mark Murphy influence, Lellis is able to carve out his own style and manner, though you’ll never forget Murphy lingers in the background.