As only a casual jazz listener, I find most of what is labeled as “contemporary jazz” to be polished impersonations of better vocalists—pretty singing that lacks the weathered authenticity that the first-name greats (Ella, Billie, Etta, etc.) oozed effortlessly. It’s this authenticity that gives an artist edge and makes us, the audience, want to care about the music. I find that the simplest way to separate the “artistes” from the “poseurs” is to perform a little musical home improvement on the composition in question—strip off the paint, dull the sheen, tear up the cushy carpet and listen to what’s underneath. Sometimes it’s ugly, right? But other times you discover something special.
Jamie Leonhart’s debut album The Truth About Suffering is special. It’s the golden hardwood floors beneath the beige carpet of contemporary jazz. Leonhart may not swallow fire for her spectators, but the result is far more pleasing, in an understated, “quality over quantity” sort of way. Where her peers may dabble in crossover appeal, mixing-and-mashing like rhythm engineers, Leonhart’s music remembers her predecessors. In a way, she channels the soft sass of Peggy Lee and the gentle blue-eyed soul of Dusty Springfield, via 1920s New York cabaret. She’s also inspired comparisons to modern folksmiths like Chan Marshall and Joni Mitchell (although, occasionally I wonder if every brunette with a resonant, smoky trill is going to be likened to Marshall, regardless of how allied their sounds and objectives actually are).
Strong tracks on Suffering include “Who Says Words,” a swinging narrative translated from Rumi’s poem of the same title (“Who Says Words With My Mouth?”) and the whimsical “The Spider and The Fly,” which avoids being labeled ‘precious’ purely by the opening line: “You’re drowning in a sea of mediocrity, but don’t hold on to me anymore.” For fans of the glockenspiel, Leonhart plays one; she also plays the harmonium, a free-standing keyboard, not unlike the pipe organ (but with a sound similar to that of an accordion). For fans of puppets, Leonhart covers “The Rainbow Connection” (originally sung by Kermit the Frog in The Muppet Movie).
Jamie Leonhart will be performing this Friday, 3/21 at Joe’s Pub in NYC, with her "trio" (including husband Michael Leonhart, who also accompanied on Suffering). For more information, please visit www.jamieleonhart.com.