By Marilyn Lester

Nicole Zuraitis: The Way Home

Pianist-singer-songwriter and Grammy-nominee Nicole Zuraitis is a top-flight jazz diva who’s always looked for new ways to mold and bend her art. Zuraitis is an artist brimming with intelligence and an explorer’s spirit, known for taking jazz and shaping it with the elements of other musical genres, which she terms jazz-adjacent. Her dedication to this pursuit has been so focused she’s practically made delving into musical risk-taking a lifestyle. Happily, in performance and recordings, those risks have paid off handsomely in positive, creative dividends.  

 In The Way Home (on the Dot Time label), she’s channeled her inner Joni Mitchell, producing seven original songs that form a kind of song cycle about life on the road, taking a look at what it means to be a working musician. These story songs, like Mitchell’s work, draw from folk, pop and rock. They are by no means derivative. Each is crafted and stamped with Zuraitis’ own brand of melody, harmony and metrics, authentically springing from her own experience. The over-arching mood of these seven originals is quiet power. There’s a certain amount of restraint in her delivery––not born of holding back, but to the contrary, of empowering the lyric and the music with intensity. The opener, “Make It Flood” and “The Way Home” especially speak to this approach. Creative ideas regularly dot the landscape of her handiwork. “Rock Bottom” features a powerful chorus and gorgeous harmonies, while “Sugar Spun Girl” matches the lyric with musical effects that imply candy machines. “Overdrive Mind” ends with a chaotic dissonance of sounds. The closer, by contrast, is “Lullaby,” a thoroughly traditional tune, gently played by Zuraitis at the piano, sweetly vocalizing.

Three numbers on the CD are covers, two of which can be considered somewhat esoteric choices––an ingenious move in its own right. From the 1990s rock band, Rusted Root, Zuraitis presents “Send Me on My Way,” the jazziest tune on The Way Home. In her hands the number becomes a syncopated, toe-tapping piece with offbeat chords and angles of phrasing. There’s also a superb vocal backup arrangement and Zuraitis letting loose with prime scat. Prince’s “I Would Die 4 U” is interpreted with a dramatic build-up and sophisticated vocal harmonies, plus plenty of rock trimmings. The most familiar tune of the 10 tracks is “What a Wonderful World” (Bob Thiele/George David Weiss). Contra to the popular, hopeful version many know via Louis Armstrong, Zuraitis sings it almost like a dirge. The lyric and undertone of her vocalizing still communicate hope, but hope feeling the impact of the current world socio-political climate.

Providing superb musicianship to Zuraitis’ splendid arrangements are Carmen Staaf (Fender Rhodes piano, organ),  Idan Morim (guitars), Chase Potter (strings), Alex Busby Smith (bass) and Dan Pugach (drums). Back-up vocalists are Thana Alexa and Elise Testone.

Brianna Thomas: Everybody Knows

Jazz singer-composer, Brianna Thomas, is the daughter of CJ Thomas, a vocalist, drummer and leader of  “Dave & The Dynamics.” She has not only been immersed in music and performing since the age of six, but has been praised and mentored by the likes of Wynton Marsalis and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Steve Miller, who wrote the liner notes for Everybody Knows. That’s quite a pedigree, and when all is said in done, this second (self-produced) album confirms Thomas’ status as a major player in the jazz world––it’s a winner. For my money, Thomas should continue to turn out CDs on a regular basis, for that’s where her outstanding talent really shines. I’ve seen her perform live many times and am always disappointed in the overall effect. Even with mic-ing, her light voice doesn’t project the power that it does on record. Added to that is the disadvantage that, for whatever reason, she simply doesn’t have a strong stage presence. But put her in a recording studio and her synergy with her musicians results in magic.

The title, Everybody Knows, reflects Thomas‘ idea in song of what represents the range of common human experience. The well-known yet eclectic choices lean towards ballads, but a variety of other musical styles give the 11-track CD balance. The familiar standard, “My Foolish Heart” (Victor Young/Ned Washington) is delivered fairly trad, showing off Thomas’ wide vocal range in its Latin-tinged arrangement. Her own “How Much Forgiveness” and “It Had to Be You” (Isham Jones/Gus Kahn) are also sung trad in the way Ella Fitzgerald might offer up such plums. But Thomas can also turn a song on its head. The standard “Since I Fell For You” (Buddy Johnson), generally sung as a tear-jerker, is instead full of bright syncopation. Yet even with jazz swing, Thomas still keeps an undertone of despair present as a blues. In fact, blues figures prominently throughout the album. Thomas proves she can be a badass Mama with the double entendre hokum blues tune, “My Stove’s in Good Condition,” made famous by Lil Johnson in the 1930s. The one miss on the album is Nina Simone’s intense protest song, “Mississippi Goddam.” This funkified version simply lacks the fire and passion it’s meant to convey. But kudos go to Thomas in great measure for her intelligent treatment of “Ain’t Got Nothin’ But the Blues” (Duke Ellington/Don George). Ellington was all about the blues. Yet the 1944 debut of the tune had Al Hibbler delivering a crooner version. Well-known takes by Ella Fitzgerald, Lou Rawls, Joe Williams and even Sarah Vaughn brought restrained blues to the piece. Thomas “gets it.” Her take is slow and edgy, building to a wailing lament. She’s living the lyric. I’m sure Duke would take his top hat off to her.

Thomas has assembled a terrific group of musicians who are wonderfully in sync with the diva. They are pianist Conun Pappas, guitarist Marvin Sewell, bassist Ryan Berg, Brazilian percussionist Fernando Saci and drummer Kyle Poole.