Wednesday, December 29, 2010

CD Review - Sarah Wilson - Trapeze Project

Sarah Wilson
Trapeze Project
(Brass Tonic)

Singer-instrumentalists usually need to beware. When push comes to shove, the voice always seems to get prominence over the instrument. Just ask Diana Krall or, for that matter, Karen Carpenter (who apparently swung pretty hard when she didn't have a mike in front of her, according to a CD that surfaced a few years ago). And of course, more people remember Nat "King" Cole's velvet voice and overlook how he tore the house down at the first few Jazz at the Philharmonic shows with his piano work.

Trumpeter Sarah Wilson takes a few vocal turns on her second album, Trapeze Project, which dropped back in September. What's interesting about her double-duty is how she approaches both of them in a similar manner. Her trumpet tone is strong and crisp, and she plays her themes without much extra dressing. The same can be said about her singing style. When Wilson's voice appears, doing a wordless support vocal in "She Stands in a Room," it adds extra depth to a simple, pretty melody. (As someone who usually abhors the dreaded wordless vocals, I found this one really captivating; similar in a way to what Hank Roberts did with Tim Berne in the '80s.)

Wilson puts down the trumpet and sings lyrics in "Melancholy for Peace" and "From the River." Despite some simplistic imagery, she delivers the lyrics in a direct and honest way that elevates them and maintains attention. In the early part of the former song, she phrases a little like Suzanne Vega, but her voice takes on more grit. A cover of Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart" casts the moody post-punk classic as a slow, lounge tune with just bass and some clarinet flourishes. It was bound to end up being done jazz style sometime and although there isn't any nudge-nudge irony that might come from a Bad Plus interpretation, the jury is still out on this one.

Along with the similarity between her horn and voice, Wilson's greatest skills seem to be arranging and composing. She assembled a top-flight band of Myra Melford (piano), Ben Goldberg (clarinet), Jerome Harris (bass) and Scott Amendola (drums). Wilson's trumpet (occasionally muted) and Goldberg's clarinet blend into some amazing sounds, sometimes like an oboe or soprano sax. The melodies reside in fairly simple melodic territory, like the bright folky melody of "Blessing." Then Goldberg steals the show as he nearly derails the consonance of it, with Amendola providing the appropriate kick. In "Possibility," it's Melford's turn to run wild, tearing up another upbeat melody.

All the above moments work well, but Wilson the soloist frequently takes a backseat to her bandmates. In the final quarter of the album she barely stands out at all. When she does solo in other tracks, her tone is strong but she plays it melodically safe. There's nothing wrong with that, especially with all that Wilson coaxes out of the group, but it feels like she's holding back when she has more to say.

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