“KARLA HARRIS SINGS THE DAVE & IOLA BRUBECK SONGBOOK” (Summit 637)
Shortly before her death, Iola Brubeck sent Karla Harris an out-of-print collection of songs written by her husband Dave. In the notes to “Karla Harris Sings the Dave & Iola Brubeck Songbook”, Harris writes that she knew about lyrics written for Paul Desmond’s “Take Five”, but had largely considered Brubeck an instrumental composer. Yet the book contained lyrics written by Iola and even a few written by Dave himself. Harris and her pianist/arranger Ted Rowe have taken considerable liberties in their settings. For example, “Far More Blue” adapts the vamp from “Manteca” into 7/4 time; “In Your Own Sweet Way” features a rubato duet between Harris and bassist Tom Kennedy before the rest of the band enters with a rhythmically shifting background; and the opening theme statement of “The Duke” drops the tune into extended phrase lengths, so that the band vamps build tension between Harris’ phrases. Harris possesses a dark husky voice, and it’s clear that her influences include an equal amount of soul and jazz singers. However, this works to her benefit, as it allows her to make these songs her own. She makes these seldom-heard lyrics come alive as an actress might, ensuring that the message takes priority over any vocal gymnastics. Harris is also a capable scat singer, although she limits her wordless improvisations to short passages near the end of a few of the tracks. Howe has a delicate touch in his solos, enhancing his single-note lines with surprising rhythmic motives. He provides fine support to Harris throughout (especially on their duet version of “Weep No More”), and his settings leave plenty of room for Harris and the band to shine. Kennedy switches between acoustic and electric bass (and at least in one spot on “My One Bad Habit”, it appears that he overdubbed passages on each instrument). While I’ve heard all of the musicians play straight-ahead jazz, there is a smooth jazz feeling to some of these tracks, and I think most of that comes from the alto saxophone of Bob Sheppard and the drums of Dave Weckl. On “Summer Song”, Sheppard audibly switches from a sickly sweet tone to a straight jazz sound, and I wish he have just stuck with the latter. Weckl is a superb drummer, but he seems too prominent in the mix; I’ve heard him play with much more subtlety than he exhibits here. Still, I admire this album for discovering new approaches to Brubeck’s music. The odd time signatures that Brubeck promoted are maintained here and the rhythm is handled with exceptional grace. As with Roseanna Vitro’s recent album of Clare Fischer lyrics, Karla Harris’ Brubeck album salutes and enhances our appreciation of great jazz masters.