Lisa Rich on the Highwire

Rich - Highwire

HIGHWIRE / COREA-COHAN: High Wire the Aerlialist. Contella. Bud Powell. Stardancer. The Jinn. Medley: TOWNER-WINSTONE: Celeste/ELLINGTON-GORDON: Prelude to a Kiss.* COLEMAN-GURYAN: Lonely Woman.* McGLOHON: Songbird. LAINE-FISCHER: We’ll Be Together Again. R. TOWNER: The Silence of a Candle / Lisa Rich, voc; Marc Copland, *David Kane, pno; Drew Gress, bs; Michael Smith, dm / Tritone Records 002

For those of you who don’t know, or were wondering why I don’t review more jazz vocal albums, I’ll tell you. I’m actually offered a ton of them to review, but 99% of them are by what I categorize as whispery lounge singers who think they’re singing jazz because their pianists can swing a little, even if they don’t. Now, this seems to be the big trend of the present and perhaps for the foreseeable future, but I just cringe when I hear these whispery singers, especially the women, because as a feminist I bristle at the sheer sound of some chick doing a “come hither” act with her voice. On top of that, I grew up in the 1950s listening to way too many of these kinds of singers (Helen Merrill, Caterina Valente, Julie London). I thought they sucked back then and I still think they suck now. My idea of a female jazz singer is one with some backbone who sings out more: Ella, Alice Babs, Sarah Vaughan, Anita O’Day, Connee Boswell (most of the time, anyway), Carmen McRae, and later on, Cheryl Bentyne and Diane Schuur. Those are my kind of jazz singers. (Lorraine Feather is a special case; her voice is soft-grained but she always swings, sometimes sings out, and her songwriting skills are off the charts.)

Thus I was not expecting much when I received this CD, scheduled for release next week, in the mail for review, but I did note that Lorraine Feather herself praised her earlier recording in the Los Angeles Times, so I gave it a whirl.

I’m glad I did. Lisa Rich was a very fine talent.

Perhaps you’re wondering why I use the term “was.” The answer, which I got from reading the promo material accompanying this album, is that Lisa Rich “experienced serious health issues…She stopped performing altogether. She opened up a music studio working as a teacher…gave private lessons and conducted workshops.” She cannot perform any longer, but last year, “after working tirelessly to find the strength to rise up again, she returned to mix the music she had begun so long ago.”

The downside of this album is that it includes a lot of ballads. The upside is that she clearly had outstanding talent. Apparently she also made an album with the late Clare Fischer, Touch of the Rare, and my estimation of Clare Fischer is extremely high. Go back to the beginning of my blog and you’ll find reviews I wrote of new releases of music by both Clare Fischer and his son, Brent.

But because of the preponderance of ballads, I will give an overview of the album rather than my usual track-by-track analysis so as not to offend an obviously talented woman whose career was cut short by illness.

Although she did not have a phenomenal voice in the sense that many other female jazz singers of her time did (i.e., Maureen McGovern, Cleo Laine. Diane Schuur), Rich had a very pleasant timbre and excellent diction and she swung very well. Despite her limited vocal resources, she could and did sing “out” at times where her modern-day sisters would continue to sing softly. Another plus is the presence of five tunes by Chick Corea, including the uptempo High Wire the Aerialist and The Jinn. In addition, her backup band could really swing, particularly drummer Michael Smith who is both propulsive and understated, a rare combination.

Corea’s ballad Contessa has a better-than-average musical shape: its melody line resembling the improvisation of a wind instrument, and Rich negotiates its unusual shape with taste and skill. I would also be remiss if I didn’t point out the excellent playing on this track by pianist Marc Copland who, though he uses a fairly narrow dynamic range, has some really superb musical ideas. His solo on this number is really a gem, growing and developing through a couple of choruses before Rich re-enters. The choice to make a medley out of Ralph Towner’s Celeste and Duke Ellington’s Prelude to a Kiss was a good one, though the latter is a better song than the former.

Another real gem on this disc is her performance of Chick Corea’s tribute to Bud Powell. Her relaxed, understated ability to swing reminds me a bit of Cheryl Bentyne. I was particularly interested to hear how she would do Lonely Woman since this was a piece written by Ornette Coleman without the idea of a piano, which is used here. The harmonization of the tune is clever but, to some extent, smoothes out the unusual qualities that the original recording possessed. The Jinn, an unusual song with shifting time signatures and tempi, is given an excellent performance.

Lisa Rich is certainly worth hearing. Her phrasing and beat were superb, and I would surely rather hear her than most of the lounge singers we get nowadays.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Read my book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond: An extended and detailed guide to the intersection of classical music and jazz

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