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On the Younger Side
Reviews by Rob Lester

Let's celebrate some artists still in their 20s but who seem to be "old souls," credibly and creatively inhabiting ageless songs and styles. All are well on their way. We start with vibrant vocalist Veronica Swift, who released her first CD at the age of nine(!), with her newest offering: This Bitter Earth, named for the moody 1960 song. That number also appears on rising jazz star Alyssa Allgood's latest collection, while Miss Swift shows up as a guest twice on a 10-track treat from the arranger/conductor of some of her album's selections: Steven Feifke. And in her most recent single, 22-year-old Rebecca Angel takes on a 55-year-old hit—a response to street protestors and police that's eerily resonant these days.


Mack Avenue Records
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In command and commanding attention—and admiration—is adventurous Veronica Swift, a singer steeped in tradition but full of surprises. While her earliest efforts stunningly and precociously began to establish her as a contender worthy of the mature material she favored (classics covered by legendary jazz ladies), recent repertoire and arrangements are increasingly eclectic. Like her prior collection, Confessions (2019), This Bitter Earth is daring, dramatic, and very often dazzling.

The title selection is a knockout, richly rewarding in its range of emotions expressed. Starting this old Dinah Washington hit with focused gravitas and hovering regret, it builds incrementally to the lyric's triumphant closing, a declaration of hope. The track is suitably serious and intense. Contrastingly, when sassy fun is the order of the day for the sly "Trust in Me," trust in the versatile Veronica to be up to the task. Not every performer could take a character piece created for a deceiving python (from that animated animal in the Disney adaptation of The Jungle Book) and make it her own winking, slinky seduction tour de force.

Generously sampled are works crafted for the world of musical theatre. There's an invested, grand interpretation of "The Man I Love," that immortal classic by the Gershwins that tells of romantic hoping and patient waiting—which, ironically, had to wait 90 years to officially be part of a Broadway production. (Cut from two shows in the 1920s and a casualty of an out-of-town closing, it was revived for the film of An American in Paris and its recent stage incarnation.) There are two Rodgers & Hammerstein classics: a fiercely unblinking look at the cause and consequence of prejudice with "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught" from South Pacific and "Getting to Know You" (whose melody was originally written for that show, cut and rescued for The King and I). This one is jubilant, brimming over with the "bright and breezy" feelings mentioned in its lyric.

Three other picks come from musicals of the 1960s. We get Skyscraper's zippy "Everybody Has the Right to Be Wrong," bringing a rewarding romp through Jimmy Van Heusen's ingratiating melody and Sammy Cahn's cute lyric. The diva dive into Bye Bye Birdie's "How Lovely to Be a Woman" somehow wildly both delights in and demolishes its demure and dewy-eyed persona of a teenager in 1960. Then, on the torchy side, there's the skewed vision of the stand-by-your-man standard "As Long As He Needs Me" from Oliver!. Do we need disclaimers for what's declaimed in those last two songs written for women when they're performed outside the context of the stories' characters and their time periods? Maybe, but confronting the culture enabling them is what the performances feel like. That's even truer with a truly unsettling pop entry from the same decade: "He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss)"—which recalls a troubling interaction in the musical Carousel. Yikes!

Pianist Emmet Cohen is one of the excellent players on the intriguing and compelling This Bitter Earth. The title song, the two Rodgers & Hammerstein classics, and the exultant Amanda Palmer encouragement to "Sing" feature a string quartet and are arranged and conducted by Steven Feifke. Veronica Swift is also featured on the two gems from the Great American Songbook on his own new Kinetic. Starred attraction or guest, her terrific talents are always welcome.


Outside In Music
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Including its aptly named title number, the swinging and sizzling Kinetic boasts seven engaging original instrumental pieces composed by Steven Feifke, its splendid band's conductor, fleet-fingered pianist, arranger, orchestrator and producer. Also heard to fine effect are two standards sung by Veronica Swift, as well as Horace Silver's 1954 tribute to a baroness who was a jazz patron, "Nica's Dream." (That one and "Wollongong," named for the Australian city, are also on the prior collection, Peace in Time.)

The on-target, on-fire Feifke turns 30 next month, but in his time thus far has already done a lot. He's been a sideman on about 30 recordings in addition those he leads, gigged all over the world, and been musical director for folks such as nightclub crooner Steve Tyrell and Broadway's Santino Fontana. I caught—and was caught up in—one of his many live performances when he and his band came to Manhattan's famous Birdland in a memorable Christmas concert to share the bill and blithe spirits with talented Benny Benack III, who is on board here on trumpet and flugelhorn, and featured on "Nica's Dream."

There's many a hot brassy blast, but I do wish the leader's piano presence were more front and center. Brass players account for eight members of the Steven Feifke Big Band, which also has a few men on clarinets, saxes and flutes, four fellows alternating on drum duties, plus guitarist Alex Wintz and nimble bassist Dan Chmielinski (who gets some prominence in the middle section of the appealing "Midnight Beat" which, like much on Kinetic, also has lots of punch). It's great to hear these tight arrangements of evocative, primarily provocative and mega-energetic—but not exhausting—creations. While not indulging in much meandering, the tracks are long. (The shortest are close to five minutes in duration, and half of the 10 go beyond seven minutes.)

The two vocal tracks, with Veronica Swift at her playfully sultry best, are the spice icing on the rich Kinetic cake, both with generous instrumental breaks where things build for the singer's second entrances. She is relaxed and cozy at the beginning of "Until the Real Thing Comes Along," which came along back in 1936, building to a steamy belt, then cooling down again at the end. Her other contribution is a luxurious and serene stroll "On the Street Where You Live." She has often walked down this street before, with in-concert performances of the My Fair Lady evergreen around online and on the 2018 recording The Birdland Big Band Live.

Kinetic is a kick.


Cellar Music
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With jazz chops and charm, the Chicago-based singer Alyssa Allgood is a pleasure to spend listening time with, via her third full-length release called What Tomorrow Brings. Its title references a line from the lyric of the opening track, "There Are Such Things," introduced almost 80 years ago by the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra with Frank Sinatra and The Pied Pipers. Sinatra was 27 years old then, the same age as this rising star was when she recorded this rose-colored vision of life and romance. One can believe that she believes it. She can sound at home with such vintage material, further evidenced by convincing treatments of two things from the 1930s: the wistful "For All We Know" and Noël Coward's lust-laced "Mad About the Boy."

But retro is not the sole M.O., as songs from other decades populate the self-produced recording, including four written by the vocalist and/or her bass player, Dennis Carroll. Although they seem sincere, these sometimes feel more like stream-of-consciousness observations or dropping of weighty observations rather than tightly crafted, polished songs. Still, they offer other rewards in performance skills. Atypically, there's no pianist on the date, with the only other musicians being guitarist Mike Allemana and drummer George Fludas.

While this artist who won a contest named for one legendary jazz lady (Ella Fitzgerald) and was a finalist in a competition named for another (Sarah Vaughan) doesn't really remind me of either in timbre, she can hold her own in the tradition when she opts to soar, bend notes, or scat-sing. But lyrics get the deserved attention from Alyssa Allgood; she projects intelligence. The contents present a variety of moods and points of view, allowing for plenty of pensive moments to linger in. This aspect is accented by an asset amply displayed: the voice sustaining notes on key words, more than many would, but with apparent ease. And high tones can be quite impressive.

Attitudes are presented with conviction. "This Bitter Earth" doesn't dwell in pessimism, propelled with vim, as if she's been convinced all along of the happy forecast proclaimed at the song's end. An analogous seek-and-ye-shall-find message about requited love bringing bliss comes with that wonderfully gentle encouragement to "Try Your Wings." Taking stock and hindsight are on the agenda for life lessons thoughtfully examined with the Allgood/Carroll "Memories," Abbey Lincoln's "Should've Been," and the Brazilian beauty born as "Travessia" sung in English as "Bridges."

I'll be interested to follow the future endeavors of Alyssa Allgood. From the strengths shown in recordings and comments in interviews, she seems serious and committed—ready, willing, and able to be in the game for the long haul.


Timeless Grooves Records

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It seems like it could have been prompted by events of very recent fraught times, but singer-songwriter Stephen Stills gave us "For What It's Worth" back in the mid-1960s. His wary, cautionary commentary about observed protest marches in the streets and the accompanying curfew and actions by police echo anew nowadays, and Rebecca Angel, in her early 20s, sounds the alarm as a representative of a new generation of the woke.

The one-song physical disc and download item is one more trickling out from the recent college grad whose past small-doses releases, an EP and other singles, include pop, Christmas fare, and a dips into standards and bossa nova. She has a warm sound, direct manner, and flair. Does her take on "For What It's Worth" take sides? Maybe, but it's worth the revisit as she ominously points out "a man with a gun over there" and makes points such as "Nobody's right if everybody's wrong." Stills' still-relevant concern is arranged and produced by Jason Miles (who is on keyboards, joined by a band that includes trumpet-playing dad Dennis Angel). The brooding hit is successfully refreshed with contemporary gloss. However, it pays its respects to the original architecture, starting with the spare but memorably mood-setting introduction that becomes a key repeated figure. Phrasing suggests being both present and prescient. The listener may not be a visitor to the past—or even necessarily be learning from it. Everything seems rooted in the witnessing and questioning of the here and now.

As for the future, I'm glad to see that Rebecca Angel has announced a new multi-song release slated for June.

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