By Marilyn Lester . . .
The jazz world has a new star-in-the-making. Seventeen-year-old ANAÏS RENO can claim membership to the line of remarkable singers from Ivie Anderson to the incomparable Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan, to today’s Catherine Russell, Dee Dee Bridgewater and most recently, Veronica Swift. Lovesome Thing (Harbinger Records), Reno’s first album, is a stunning debut, beautifully executed, and showing promise of great things to come.
I first heard Reno sing at the Mabel Mercer Foundation competition for high school students two years ago. She was not only impressive for her style, technique and vocal prowess, but for her attunement to the work of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, two towering geniuses of the American Songbook. The love shows in her work, along with an advanced ability to execute some pretty sophisticated compositions. But Reno has been studying jazz voice since age eight. She’s also been mentored by musical parents, a former opera singer father and classical violinist mother. Plus, she’s smartly been paying attention to the greats whose shoulders she stands on: Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Mel Tormé and Sarah Vaughan, among others.
Lovesome Thing is a homage that refreshingly includes some lesser-performed numbers, mostly Strayhorn’s, along with the familiar. Reno is aided immeasurably by the musicians who support her. Pianist and musical director, Emmet Cohen, is one of the most accomplished new jazz talents today. He’s full of creative ideas, has superior skills and a true feeling for jazz. All of this he’s applied to a canny understanding of Reno and her abilities.
Cohen’s superlative solo piano can be heard on Strayhorn’s “UMMG (Upper Manhattan Medical Group)” and in the foreground on the sweetly executed ballads “All the Roads Lead Back to You” (alternately known as “Lotus Blossom without lyrics) and “Day Dream” (Strayhorn/John Latouche). Working with Cohen are members of his trio, bassist Russell Hall and drummer Kyle Poole. Hall’s excellent bass work is on display with an innovative introduction to “I’m Just a Lucky So and So” (Ellington/Mack David). The arrangement is a smooth, blues-based, light swing, perfectly tailored to Reno’s style.
Of course, there’s big swing because “it don’t mean a thing” without it. One of the best outings on Lovesome Thing is “Caravan” (Juan Tizol/Ellington/Irving Mills). Reno shows her chops scatting, and frequent Cohen collaborator, saxophone genius Tivon Pennicott, executes a virtuosic solo. Pennicott also shines mightily on the Strayhorn medley of “Chelsea Bridge/A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing.” Although lyrics do exist to “Chelsea Bridge,” written by Bill Comstock, they are seldom heard. Reno vocalizes, gliding smoothly into “A Flower…” Also heard on Lovesome Thing is Reno’s mother, Juliet Kurtzman on violin. Her playing on “Mood Indigo” (Ellington/Mitchell Parrish) is especially lovesome.
And what would an Ellington/Strayhorn album be without the now iconic, “Take the A Train?” It was written by Strayhorn in 1939 when he joined the Ellington organization and it immediately became the theme song for Ellington’s orchestra. Although Strayhorn said he wrote lyrics for the tune, Ellington’s long-time singer, Ivie Anderson, also claimed lyrics, but they’re generally attributed to another Ellington singer, Joya Sherrill. This iteration of the tune is a bright, toe-tapping swing, with Reno further proving her ability as a scat artist.
“Mood Indigo,” the album opener, is a challenge partially met. Reno is incredibly mature already, but her youth shows on this intense blues number, as it does on Strayhorn’s “Lush Life.” These are tunes with lyrics of deep angst she’ll grow into. Ironically, Strayhorn initially and precociously composed the tune when he was 17. He worked on it over the years and it became a matter of personal property for him. For most of his life he wouldn’t allow anyone to sing it. Listening to his own version, you can get that. I’ve heard many a singer torture the tune. Reno, within the limitations of experience and maturity, has the number down. Her intuitive phrasing and technical understanding is spot on. In a decade or more she’ll be able to call it her own.
Reno is off to a grand start. Already confident, technically accomplished and expressive, maturity will only add layers of depth to a singer who’s already a major standout. With so much ahead of her, she’s going to be someone to watch. “Lovesome Thing” is available on Harbinger Records and on all digital and CD sale