First off, Back Before The Why
by singer-songwriter Roberta Donnay is not a jazz album. Rather, it is a sturdily constructed pop effort, by someone who probably likes jazz. There is occasional instrumentation that might charitably be called "jazzy," but even the cameos by trumpet and saxophone are recorded to sound as if they are being transmitted from some distant planet. The horns are not distorted per se, but seem enveloped in a hazy echo that renders them almost utterly alien amidst the sterile drum machines and synths that color the songs. The production recalls that on the last two Leonard Cohen albums. However, while the bland sound of those albums shifted the listener’s focus from the music to the ever astonishing poetry of the lyrics, Back Before The Why
does not feature the lyrical heft of a Leonard Cohen to sustain music that is not terribly interesting.
Donnay does have a powerful, fluid voice and a knack for sharp pop hooks that bear themselves in the lovely ballad "Call Me The Breeze" (which is not the J.J. Cale tune of the same name). Her heart seems to belong to pop and the jazz flourishes, that almost reach a fetishistic level on the spoken word "Harold’s Rogue & Jar," distract from most of the tightly packed pieces. A strict focus on the pop side of her muse might have a real upside on future efforts.