Editor’s note: This is the second of four album reviews being published over the course of two weeks, spotlighting new releases from some of our favorite D.C. jazz musicians.
by Ken Avis
Given Lena Seikaly’s firm grounding in harmony and composition, it’s no surprise that a musician sharing the bandstand with her once remarked on a harmonic progression she’d written: “Man, those are some lovely changes!” The phrase struck a chord and emerged as the title of her second recording.
On Seikaly’s new album, her second, there are Lovely Changes in more ways than one. The album presents a constantly shifting harmonic and rhythmic landscape in which familiar jazz classics by Cole Porter, Frank Loesser and Jerome Kern co-exist alongside Seikaly originals and unexpected arrangements of more contemporary songs by Elliot Smith, Brian Wilson and Amie Mann; a touch of 1967 Antonio Carlos Jobim bridges the gap. Seikaly’s cool, classic jazz voice breathes a cohesive beauty into the recording, the release of which she celebrates with a show this Sunday at Blues Alley. Her vocals are complemented by the savvy arrangements and sensitive musicianship that she and her band mates put forward; the group is comprised of Dan Roberts on piano, Tom Baldwin on bass and Dominic Smith on drums.
The opening ballad, “Amateur,” written by the rock musician Amie Mann, emerges as a swing waltz. With a slow tempo and sophisticated, world-worn lyric, the song could easily have been a Burt Bacharach/Dionne Warwick classic. Next, the brooding ballad, “Memento,” an original composition by Seikaly, takes us to an earlier era with the tenor sax of Elijah Jamal Balbed providing an appropriate after-hours ambience.
Lena Seikaly, “Triste”
[audio:https://www.capitalbop.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/03_Triste_8.25.mp3|titles=Lena Seikaly – Triste|width=250]
Seikaly slides into the bossa nova classic “Triste,” with her vocals turning light, tinder and playful over the Portuguese lyric. She whisks us away with the bebop-fueled “What Was I Supposed to Do,” another original that finds comfort in a new level of intimacy that was not present on her debut album, 2009’s Written in the Stars; its lyrics are contemporary, conversational and universal, bringing to mind the songwriting of Lorraine Feather. And Seikaly surprises with redefining arrangements of jazz standards “The Way You Look Tonight” and “Every Time You Say Goodbye.”
The twists and turns of her re-harmonized “The Way You Look Tonight” lend a sense of magic and intrigue beneath the vocal. “Every Time You Say Goodbye” benefits from an arrangement that allows breathing space, plus a well chosen, aching trumpet solo courtesy of Joe Herrera. Baldwin’s arrangement of “God Only Knows” provides an emotional highpoint, emphasizing the essence of the lyric, underscored by a yearning, impassioned bass solo that doesn’t waste a note. Baldwin and Seikaly worked together on both of her albums, and the chemistry is obvious during another moment of harmonized bass and voice on “The Way You Look Tonight.”
Closing the CD, perhaps the most unexpected choice of all, Elliot Smith’s “Waltz #1” is transformed by the chiming, icy Fender Rhodes of Roberts and the percussive touches of Dominic Smith into a drifting, dreamlike vehicle for Seikaly’s pure, sumptuous vocal line.
In just a few years, Seikaly has established herself as a major jazz vocalist and educator in the D.C. area, performing with the cream of the local crop. This recording delivers so many “lovely changes,” and builds on her debut release. The arrangements and musicianship on the album are crafted to serve the songs, leaving space for the vocal to shine front-and-center. That voice, the endlessly inventive arrangements, and the sensitive ensemble musicianship serve to make Lovely Changes a complete delight.
Lena Seikaly celebrates the release of Lovely Changes this Sunday at Blues Alley, with sets at 8 and 10 p.m. Cover is $20, and there is a $10 food and drink minimum. More information is available here, and tickets are available here.