This is an exceptional debut album by an accomplished jazz vocalist whose fidelity to mainstream jazz is simply incredible. Karen has made a huge splash with this motley collection of well-known jazz standards with a pinch of her own rather hard-hitting lyrics and tunes. The combo accompanying her is small but powerful, and some of the 'guests' appear like dazzling meteors to brighten up the jazz skies now and then.
"Swinging The Blues," an old-fashioned blues from Count Basie/Jon Hendriks/Eddie Durham, is sung with impressive gusto and verve. The composition is so perfect that neither the music drowns out the vocals, nor the vocals become too strident, as happens often with some jazz vocalists who may be too self-absorbed. This is certainly one of the best tracks in the album.
"Carefully Taught," another familiar Rogers & Hammerstein masterpiece, unfurls its sensual expanses in an irresistible manner. Russell Ferrante does his thing on the piano so well that in parts one tends to forget this is a vocal piece. There is an amazing balance of solo piano and vocals. It is a great track indeed. It also carries the Karen stamp all over it.
"My Favourite Things" is yet another Rogers & Hammerstein opus that has been jazzed up by Karen in a wholly delectable manner. The dose of jazzing is neither too strong to make the lovers of Broadway musical hits turn up their noses, nor too mild to make the jazzheads nod their heads in despair. The improvisational patch is imaginative enough and yet it does not alter the characteristic charm of the original melody at any point. It is a great track, one that could be cherished for years to come.
"You Don't Know Me" by Arnold & Walker is a difficult song to sing, and Karen puts her heart and soul into it. She makes it sound like a blues masterpiece, rather than a straight-ahead jazz song. Joey DeFranscesco hovers in the background with his Hammond B-3 organ like a well-meaning apparition, lending a holistic 3-D glory to her vocal tracks. Buddy Montgomery on the vibes creates a soul soothing ambiance that is difficult to ignore. It's a heart-rending melody that catches the listener by the ear, to focus on the lyrics and the incredible vocal gymnastics and the instrumental fireworks. It is another unforgettable performance.
"Night & Day," from the bottomless treasures of Cole Porter, is next. It features a wonderful vocal piece by Karen, followed very competently by a very fetching solo piece on piano by Frank Martin, who seems to be partnering Karen Blixt in drumming up fabulous lyrics of many a track in this hugely entertaining album. There is a very heart-warming improvisational contribution on the bass clarinet by Sheldon Brown, which one gets to hear rarely as an accompaniment to vocal jazz. Joe Herbert's cello and Paul McCandless's English horn keep frothing in the background, lending a wonderful solidity to the entire proceedings. This track is a very well spread-out multi-course meal and is very satisfying.
"Spin This," the title track, starts of with a bang. Self-confessed by Karen, it is a funky hip-hop song that ambles along its quicksilver path until one starts listening to the engaging lyrics. It turns out to be an anti-government rant, which makes immense sense. This sort of a political statement rarely appears on the jazz horizons, but she has done it with an aplomb and flair all her own. By lending it a modern funky robes, she has probably aimed it at a much wider audience, perhaps a younger audience than the usual gray-haired baby-boomers who are getting more and more sentimental by the day. Russell Ferrante's brief statements on the piano come out very interesting, backed by a steady pulsating beat on the electric bass by Troy Lampkins. Alex Acuna provides a very convincing back-up on various percussion instruments. It is an interesting piece.
"It's Over Now [Well You Needn't]" by Thelonious Monk and Mike Ferro begins with some pretty funky free jazz statements from two bass clarinet players, Paul McCandless and Sheldon Brown -this is a unique experiment indeed. The deep-throated sounds of the bass clarinets, which leisurely climb up to the higher registers whilst Karen sings, seemingly lost in her own world. The overall effect of this dialogue between three jazz artists, accentuated intelligently by Alex Acuna with percussions, turns out to be a feast of sorts for the true-blue jazz connoisseurs.
"When You're Smiling" by Fisher/Goodwin/Shay and popularized globally by the inimitable Louis Armstrong, has been given an ultra-modern makeover by Karen and friends. Joey DeFranscesco not only swings wonderfully on his Hammond organ, but he surprisingly turns out a very convincing vocal duet with Karen. He possesses a mellow and yet deep voice, and he sings without any idiosyncrasies or embellishments. There is a sustained solo on the organ in the middle of the song, which truly raises the simple old ditty to a new level of sophistication. It's a glorious example of contemporary jazz, complete with a soulful solo on the vibes by Buddy Montgomery towards the end. An astonishingly convincing jazzy arrangement on the whole.
"Kitchen Blue" is one of Karen's magically penned lyrics...the very simplicity of the verse with its unrestrained, fanciful forays into a cerebral world of emotion, makes this song very special. Accompanied only by a piano, vibes and drums, the song is designed to highlight the lyrics, and her wonderful voice. She sometimes sings almost like the all American girl Doris Day used to sing in the 1950s. Collaboration is perhaps the unquestionable forte of the group effort here. A very chirpy song with a very high emotional quotient.
"Four" is a brilliant Miles Davis/Jon Hendriks number that opens cheerfully with Joey and his Hammon organ making the right squeals at the right junctures, whilst Karen delivers the complicated vocals. An unusual beat on the drums by Willy Kennedy on drums gives it an exotic flavour -sounding rather like a jazzed up bossa nova rendition. The machine-gun fire delivery of lyrics, seems very fetchingly irresistible, peppered perfectly by the small combo, very competently backing her up. Joey De Franscesco produces one whale of an organ solo in the middle, jamming with the percussionists. This is undeniably a magnum opus.
"I Thought About You" from the pens of Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Mercer, is a nice and dreamy ballad with just a piano rambling absent-mindedly in the background conjures up the image of a teenage girl scampering around in an English garden. Surprisingly, it is the vibraphonist Buddy Montgomery who mans the piano this time. This tune highlights the vocal mastery of Karen, and provides a gluttonous fare to the listener. A wonderful song, sung as usual, with all her heart.
"Something So True," yet another collaboration between Frank Martin and Karen Blixt, is another soft and easy melody with an eerie backdrop of oboe sounds juxtaposed with a deep rumble of cello in accompaniment. Paul McCandless on oboe provides an interesting solo whilst the vocal rendering thrashes ahead resoundingly. A nice, folk-folkish ambiance pervades throughout, providing a melodious overall effect that is a hallmark of Karen Blixt's songs.
On the whole, a four-star effort, a Tiger Woodsian debut indeed.(c) Max Babi March 2006