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Judy Wexler probes hidden jazz treasures like a theater major in ‘What I See’

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Judy Wexler "What I See" [September 10, 2013 Jazzed Media]

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Though Judy Wexler’s reputation as one of the West Coast’s most compelling vocalists was cemented some time ago, ‘What I See,’ her fourth release, suggests a heightened maturity, an even greater sense of assured imagination. Much like Abbey Lincoln—and at this point in Wexler’s musical progress, the comparison is quite valid—her skills as an actress are skillfully exercised, adding vivid shadings to her interpretations. –JazzTimes

L.A.-based vocalist Judy Wexler started out learning piano at age five and in high school, doing musical theater, way before she fell into jazz — by way of her husband and their favorite neighborhood North Beach hangout, the Keystone Korner, where legends would perform live.

Theater is all over her fourth CD, “What I See,” released on Jazzed Media September 10, 2013. The CD follows her 2011 critic’s dream, “Under A Painted Sky,” where she placed herself on the JazzWeek radio charts with her effortless, but quirky renditions of hidden jazz gems.

She’s done it again here, with her longtime accompanist, Jeff Colella. A music legend himself (Lou Rawls’ two-decades-long music director), the pianist took on co-producer and arranger roles for “What I See,” adorning Wexler appropriately for each song’s moody shifts. More than backing up the vocalist is a West Coast band entrusted with the keys to the vocalist’s heart: percussionist Billy Hulting, drummer Steve Hass, bassist Chris Colangelo, Bob Sheppard on bass clarinet/alto flute, guitarist Larry Koonse, trombonist Scott Whitfield, and trumpeter/flugelhornist Ron Stout.

With each of the 11 tracks, the musicians tasked to touch the things one cannot feel sustain Wexler’s vocal theater finely. Listen to #7’s “Just For Now” — from Dory Previn’s record, “The Leprechauns Are Upon Me” — to get a feel for the efficacy of that dreamlike pattern in pianist Colella’s fine touch. He knows his gigging partner’s every lilt very well. That dreamy quality plays well also in Benny Carter’s reincarnated “Another Time, Another Place,” balancing off the pragmatic wonder in Wexler’s musing.

Even when Wexler hits on happier themes, “A Kiss To Build A Dream On,” “Laughing At Life,” and “Tomorrow Is Another Day,” she sounds melancholy, lonely, and sad, but oddly pensively removed, while the band plays its part to the hilt.

Wexler takes King Pleasure’s straightforward black and white lines in the opening number, “Tomorrow Is Another Day,” and throws a few curves around the melody’s bend, trying for a playful, flirty flounce. She even cuts up the script with a laugh or two, and a quick breakaway blink-and-miss-the-scat trick.

Wexler and Colella completely change up Rickie Lee Jones’ (her dad, really) “The Moon Is Made Of Gold” into more of a theater piece, perhaps after the Glee heroine just lost her true love and resolves to chase after him. In Wexler’s reinterpretation, she sharpens, thereby over-simplifies, the melodic turns that Jones softens and releases. Too much. There’s too much accentuation where traces should be. Jones lingers in between the suggestive points (check her doing this live, it’s unbelievable), infusing a lazy, trickling soul throughout the song as she seemingly pieces her impressions together based on the moment. Wexler’s is less jazz abstract and feel, more expansive, self-conscious theater exposition.

“Convince Me,” originally by Joyce Moreno, also suffers from too much theater. Like Rickie Lee Jones, Moreno plays it softer, tripping easier off the tongue, as if she’s feeling the lyrics from her core, not just saying her lines on cue loud enough for the balcony section to hear. Wexler’s odd, over-enunciation of the word, “quixotic,” pronounced with a “k,” and the breathless, oddly phrased lyric juggernauts — “or I should simply kiss you, put my … [scripted, orgasmic gasp] … judgment to the test” — make the song more a soft-porn come-on, less a teasing love song. It’s all a bit obvious. But the piano solo is on point, saying what the vocalist fails to without all those unnecessary, embarrassing climaxes.

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