Diane Schuur


By Marilyn Lester


It’s been six years since the multi-Grammy Award-winning singer-pianist Diane Schuur released an album (I Remember You: Love to Stan and Frank), and during that time she’s been deeply thinking about the state of the world and her place in it. The result is the aptly named Running on Faith, her second CD on the Jazzheads label. The selections are intensely personal—this is the first time in her career that she’s selected an album’s content of her own choosing. Those choices are also prescient, made well before the current upheavals related to the coronavirus pandemic and the Black Lives Matter worldwide protests. In her statement about Running on Faith, Schuur declares, “I went deep inside when I began the steps to make this statement. I did a lot of thinking about where I am physically and spiritually, about how to create an artistic palette that could illuminate my unease about social inequality and the bitter unrest among humans that share this planet upon which we walk. At the same time, I wished to bring forth a seed of optimism and joy, because I know underneath our skin, we are all the same hue.” Running on Faith delivers on that intention and more.



The album is entirely blues-based—in straight-ahead blues, gospel blues, blues ballads and even rock-inflected blues. The choice makes perfect sense. The blues is a soulful musical form that actually underpins most of American popular music. It’s a misconception to think of the blues as completely sad. It is that, but the blues also celebrates happiness, pleasure and success in its dance-oriented forms. Arrangements giving swing to Percy Mayfield’s “Walking on a Tightrope,” with its strong percussive rhythms, and Miles Davis’ “All Blues” (lyrics by Peter Elderidge and Kim Nazarian), give voice to that premise, as does an all-instrument blowout on Jaco Pastorius’ “Chicken,” featuring an inspired drum solo by Kendall Kay and the singer in scat mode. In addition to Kay, rounding out Schuur’s sextet are co-producer Ernie Watts on tenor and soprano sax, Bruce Lett on bass, Tom Rotella on guitar and Kye Palmer on trumpet and flugelhorn. The combo plays consistently in the pocket, with brass adding shading, nuance and spotlight accents to the propelling force of rhythm.

Schuur’s vocals are breezy—light and fluid. She’s unafraid to play with the music, her singing taking off frequently into flights of fancy and spontaneous hollers and shouts. It’s a technique exemplified in Mayfield’s “Danger Zone,” a slow blues with its theme of love for a world sadly “in an uproar and the danger zone is everywhere.” More than unique vocal technique, Schuur’s conversational style of singing informs a deep connection and commitment to the lyric. She’s a true storyteller, and what connects the 13 tracks of Running on Faith is that each tells a potent story. Her rendition of Lennon-McCartney’s “Let it Be,” with a stunning performance on the soprano sax by Watts, is one of the show pieces of the album. Not only is the arrangement a slow, soulful blues arcing to a dramatic musical finish a winner, but Schuur’s authenticity and conviction in telling the story turns the piece into a sacred anthem.

Ultimately, to describe Schuur’s vocal technique is to realize she uses her voice like another instrument in the mix. That musicality heard along with Watts’ strong statement on a half-sung, half-spoken and assertive interpretation of Carole King’s “Way Over Yonder.” Both Schuur the singer and Schuur the pianist offer creative phrasing. Her playing is basically lush, with the odd note appearing here and there, perfectly accenting the whole or adding emphasis, such as ending “This Bitter Earth” (Clyde Otis) on a vivid single note. Her piano introduction to the eponymous “Running on Faith” (Jerry Lynn Williams), is a microcosm of her well-honed piano chops. It’s on the last track of the CD, the spiritual “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” (Wallis Willis), that the full force of Schuur’s piano prowess is heard. Giving herself the final word in this solo performance, she delivers a musical arc of emotion with a rousing payoff. It’s a fitting conclusion to an album of incisive choices that has a lot to say in its splendid variety.