“Jackie Ryan isn’t simply a singer; she’s a force of nature. Her voice possesses a weighty power, yet soars with grace and ease. Her ability to transmute into different forms, as dictated by the song lyrics and style, makes her one in a million.” –Dan Bilawsky, All About Jazz
The best part of Jackie Ryan’s new album, “Listen Here,” is the music. Makes sense. Grammy artist John Clayton — known for his sweet collaborations with Whitney Houston, Natalie Cole, Gladys Knight, Diana Krall, Dee Dee Bridgewater, and now, Ryan — can dress any song with scene-stealing blues, gospel, and soulful jazz.
The January 22nd release has his name written all over it, from the selection of personnel (keyboardist—and son—Gerald Clayton, drummer Obed Calvaire, saxophonist Rickey Woodard, guitarist Graham Dechter, trumpeter Gilbert Castellanos) to the slamming groove underlying toe-tappers, and the heroic understatement of the ballads.
Whatever the song, bassist John Clayton accompanies vocalist Ryan with care and respect, and plenty of room for her to groove on her own. He bestows her with the great responsibility of carrying the soulful groove throughout, fully expecting her to more than exceed his expectations. His belief in her ability to mold to the deepest, grittiest emotion and character is evident, in the way he hands her the reins in the startlingly modern urban jazz number, “Comin’ Home Baby,” and the tough-to-pull-off, painfully raw “I Loves You Porgy.”
“I first paid attention to Jackie when I heard her stunning recordings with the Jeff Hamilton Trio,” Clayton explained. “Her version of ‘Bésame Mucho’ stopped me in my tracks. Obviously, every vocalist’s sound is different – different people, different body sizes – but it’s what the vocalist does with their voice that draws me in. The warmth of Jackie's sound immediately got to me. Add to that the way she uses her instrument and I was sold.”
For the most part, Ryan rewards Clayton’s belief in her with transformative truth. She completely disappears in Gershwin’s, “I Loves You Porgy” (from 1935’s Porgy & Bess), yet maintains the stark, sweeping dignity in the rending plea. By the fade, there will be lots of tears. There were for me.
Ryan maintains that sweeping dignity, while taking her time to fully embody the mood and the occasion intended by the original composers. But sometimes she gets lost in the art of divining what that intent might be. There’s too much fine-tuning and fiddling with meaning, and it’s almost as if she’s caught in the process. “The Gypsy In My Soul” and “Accentuate The Positive” seem less tributes to meaningful, personal songs, and more PSAs.
The popular jazz vocalist chose the songs in “Listen Here” for both their lyrical quality and the musical spaces dying to be filled. “Lyrics are very important to me when choosing a song. They need to be honest; they need to be clever; they need to speak to me in some way,” Ryan said. “A great lyricist knows how to work their words into a melody in a very artistic way. Like a dance between the writer of the lyric and the writer of the melody, the words need to weave themselves into the fabric of the melody in such a way that it touches you. A word placed in just the right spot in the melody will stand out and do that.”
When it works, it really works, as in the opener “Comin’ Home Baby” and in the second to the last “To The Ends Of The Earth.” Tight drums, funky offbeat bass, burning horns cutting to the chase, and a piano torrent just blend so right with Ryan’s octaves. Check out the piano and bass riffs that take “Comin’ Home Baby” someplace else entirely, very nearly overpowering what little vocal there is.
Any time Ryan includes a Spanish tune—which she does for every album she makes, in honor of her late opera-loving, opera-singing Mexican mother—she stands out. “La Puerta” trips off her tongue in a loving, warm embrace. She is completely at ease and free to just enjoy the notes of the lyrics, without overthinking as she tends to sometimes in English. Guitarist Graham Dechter uses a wide range of tones to reflect back Ryan’s own in an affective solo.
The main problem of this album is an embarrassment of riches. The high caliber of musicianship John Clayton brings forth simply, naturally takes over, leaving a damned good vocalist in the dust.
“Rip Van Winkle” again features those slamming horns, awesome piano and drum solos, but Jackie Ryan’s voice just minces along the melody, doing little else.
When the music quiets down, she simply doesn’t go anywhere different. In “A Time For Love,” she’s singing opera in a soaring attempt at an impossibly beautifully unreachable delusion. But it’s opera, not jazz, and soap opera at that.
She sings “How Little We Know (How Little It Matters)” without touching the song at all. As a result, it comes off too old fashioned, mincing, and forgettable. Same thing with “Anytime, Any Day, Anywhere.”
“Listen Here” very badly wants to be an instrumental album. Maybe it should be, in a Part Two.