Dee Daniels’ “State of the Art“ - Jazz CD Reviews

  Definitive Statement:
Dee Daniels’ State of the Art
By Neil Hobkirk
in Music Reviews, Recordings WallOfSound

Dee Daniels should need no introduction. Unfortunately, she too often does. In a music climate clouded by jazz-singing sound-alikes, a vocalist brave enough to let her affinity for hard bop remain undiluted by easy-listening production values; a vocalist who wields her instrument brashly like a player, exploring extended techniques comparable to the most intrepid trumpeters’ and saxophonists’; such a vocalist is bound to appeal foremost to the hard-core jazz aficionado. But given the heights and depths of feeling that Ms. Daniels accesses through her phenomenal vocal range, and the compulsively limb-engaging swing that she and her musicians whip up, her appeal should be obvious to any pair of ears.

Like Jeri Brown and Ranee Lee, two other singers with unashamed virtuoso leanings, Dee Daniels is an American who relocated long-term to Canada. In her case, this move came on the heels of a five-year musical pilgrimage to Holland and Belgium, where she built upon her gospel, r&b and rock roots to hone a career in straightahead jazz. For over two decades afterwards, she based that career in Vancouver, BC, releasing seven albums and a DVD. Just three years ago, to be closer to the action, Daniels moved south of the border to the Big Apple.

There in 2013 she recorded State of the Art, the Criss Cross Jazz label’s first-ever vocalist-led date after some 360 releases. That number symbolizes the completion of a full circle, for Dee Daniels reportedly became aware of Criss Cross while living in Amsterdam in 1982, when the Dutch label’s catalogue consisted of a single album. The Criss Cross Jazz release schedule is modest, at this point encompassing about a dozen new albums yearly, but chances are that Daniels will reappear on the label before long: it has a proven track record of loyalty to its musicians, many of whom appear as both leaders and sidemen on numerous releases across the Criss Cross catalogue.

In common with labels like HighNote, Capri, Sharp Nine, Posi-Tone and Cellar Live, Criss Cross stands as a stronghold of straightahead jazz, a haven for players who prize the values of bebop and hard bop. For the first couple of years, label founder and producer Gerry Teekens employed the services of recording engineer Rudy Van Gelder in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. Since then the majority of albums have been engineered by another former optometrist of Dutch extraction, Max Bolleman, who would accompany Teekens yearly from Holland to record Criss Cross artists in NYC. Latterly, sound engineering duties have devolved on other shoulders—in this case, on Max Ross’s. Ross also mastered the recording, which was mixed by Michael Marciano.

Recording quality is impeccably clear and full, keeping Ms. Daniels’ voice front and centre but giving her instrumentalists enough presence to confirm that they worked with her dynamically as a band, not passively as backup. On the earlier sessions with which I’m most familiar, Love Story (1999) and Feels SO Good! (2002), the singer is cited as co-producer. The sound on the first disc, recorded in Vancouver, is gorgeous: warm and transparent, enshrining a sense of intimacy among the players. The next album, recorded in New York, sounds comparatively rough, with a strident edge and tinny piano. This new Teekens production does not sound so delicately suspended somewhere beyond time as Love Story, still my favourite Dee Daniels disc; State of the Art conveys a more clinical atmosphere in which detail is sharply preserved with a brightness suiting the down-to-business hurly burly of her new hometown.

The opening track asserts this sense of immediacy when Daniels explodes out of the starting gate: the pent-up energy that propels “Almost Like Being in Love” makes it sound almost like she and the band began the tune in medias res. This is one of two up-tempo standards briskly dispatched on State of the Art; the other ten tracks reside on the slow side. Daniels flaunts her chops early in the tune, scatting atop the buoyant accompaniment of pianist Cyrus Chestnut. The scatting gives way to an economical tenor solo by Eric Alexander, who cut his first album as a leader for Criss Cross in 1992 and has been contributing prolifically to the label as a sideman ever since. On the other fast number, “I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart,” Alexander’s sax trades quips with Alvester Garnett’s kit until the drummer breaks out in a solo display of varied rhythmic resource.

A major revelation on the new album is “Cherokee,” which Dee Daniels delivers more slowly than pretty much anyone. The tune has been recorded only occasionally by vocalists, including one of Dee’s major influences, Sarah Vaughan. Usually it serves as a showpiece for instrumentalists bent on exercising maximum technique at breakneck speed. Tribal tom-toms and dark piano notes open the piece with an air of exoticism befitting the fanciful lyrics. Like other female singers who’ve tackled the tune, Daniels addresses her words to a “sweet Indian warrior,” as opposed to the “sweet Indian maiden” originally specified. As always, on “Cherokee” her low notes are beautifully formed, ruminatively casting an autumnal spell with the help of Garnett’s brushwork and delicate cymbal washes, not to mention a piano solo where Chestnut calmly loiters along the keys.

The other notably languid display here is Daniels’ astonishing take on the warhorse “Willow Weep for Me.” Hers has already earned a place alongside my favourite renditions: Billy Bang (violin); Stanley Turrentine (tenor sax); and Tin Hat Trio (vocals by Willie Nelson). Abetted by Chestnut’s sparse accompaniment, Daniels’ soulfully haunted delivery brings the broken-hearted narrator to life, finding sympathetic desolation in the willow tree’s elaborate weeping. Her artful elongation of syllables and final imploring repetitions of “weep” infuse Ann Ronell’s audacious word-assemblage with keen feeling. In the sax solo, Alexander’s glistening tone supplies objective commentary, an entirely different sound from Houston Person’s on Love Story and Feels SO Good!, where the elder tenorist’s warm soulfulness closely complements Daniels’ dusky timbre.

In “Lover Man,” performed just as slowly as “Willow Weep for Me” and at even greater length, Daniels again hauntingly animates a lovelorn soul. She takes a ruminative approach, phrasing deliberately and ominously to impart an unexpected complexity: this lonely woman wants love but equally dreads its implications. Hear how Daniels drops her voice to draw out the word “strange” at 2:58, underlining this ambivalence. A quietly hair-raising moment. And listen to the final iteration of “Hugging and a-kissing/Oh, [look] what I’ve been missing,” where she lingers thoughtfully over her words, adding “look” with an air of irony as though doubting the value of desire.

Further highlights are too many to mention at length. There’s the brace of Sinatra-associated tunes: “Summer Wind,” with a masterfully undemonstrative piano solo from Chestnut; and Cole Porter’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” sporting a dapper turn from Alexander. Trombonist Wycliffe Gordon, whose disc The Intimate Ellington (2013) boasted Daniels’ first Criss Cross appearance, lends a playful arrangement of another Porter number, “Night and Day.” Here, to stress the ineluctable recurrence of romantic longing, the singer matches wits with introductory drum embellishments that conjure beating tom-toms, ticking clocks and dripping raindrops. “Almost Like Being in Love” likewise wears a Gordon arrangement. The repertoire on Daniels’ disc was influenced too by Houston Person, who reportedly recommended a couple of numbers: “I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone” and a comparative obscurity, “Why Did I Choose You.” The latter affords bassist Paul Beaudry his one spotlit moment, when he solos forthrightly against a distant trickle of piano keys.

In fact, like her other two albums that I’ve mentioned, Dee’s State of the Art is all highlights—nothing added merely to inch the CD towards a one-hour running time. If this disc is a statement definitive of Daniels’ present intent, it seems she’s concerned these days with finding greater subtlety within vocal constraints. Sure, the expressive means remain markedly more varied than most vocalists’, but just compare them to the extreme thrills and spills she delivered on Feels SO Good!: where, for example, Daniels’ original tune “Love Ain’t Love Without You” offered the most passionately charged proof of stratospheric vocal reach that you’re likely to hear. State of the Art installs the master more introspectively in her workshop, still choosing from all the tools available, but only as appropriate to the task at hand. The tasks are assigned by the Great American Songbook: no originals this time, and no David/Bacharach songs (like “The Look of Love” on FSG!); just standards and near-standards whose lyrics Daniels inhabits so fully that you feel her coming to terms with whatever process they document. The songs emerge lived-in, lived-through, and with the Dee Daniels “wow” factor intact. What more can I say? Wow!



  Criss Cross Jazz Roundup  
By C. Andrew Hovan
Reviewed for – All About Jazz

The life experiences of vocalist Dee Daniels have taken her literally far and wide, from her early childhood in Seattle to five years spent in the Netherlands back in the mid ’80s. Coming from a gospel background, the Oakland native now resides in Vancouver and can add to her resume the distinction of being the first vocalist to appear on the Criss Cross imprimatur.

State of the Art, in its selection of a dozen choice standards, speaks volumes to the talents of Daniels and begs the question as to why it’s taken so long for her to make this definitive statement. Clearly, she sounds confident and poised and producer Gerry Teekens can be proud of the results. Pianist Cyrus Chestnut and his trio can take some credit too for creating the perfect setting, along with Eric Alexander, who sits in on a few numbers too.

It’s telling that on “Cherokee,” a number that usually sports a breakneck tempo to test the tenacity of its explorers; Daniels opts for a ballad statement. Her elongated phrases are marked by the dark timbre of her voice and the sagacious use of her vibrato. Daniels’ way with a lyric comes to further fruition on “I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone.” She has this technique where she trills a long note to give it a bluesy character. Furthermore, her upper register climbs often take on a timbre akin to Phoebe Snow and Patti Austin. Yet in the final analysis, what you hear is all Dee Daniels.

Also curious is the inclusion of two numbers with a strong association to Frank Sinatra. Both “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” and “The Summer Wind” find Daniels in excellent form, the former also sporting a fine solo from Alexander. She also utilizes the seldom heard introduction for “Night and Day.” Dig how she sings about the beat of the tom-toms and tick of the clock, only to be echoed by drummer Alvester Garnett. Then, the tempo locks in for what has to be one of the album’s best performances.

The State of the Art is a refreshing take and true statement of jazz vocalizing. Dee Daniels is the real deal, a declaration that can’t always be made in regards to the overabundance of so called jazz singers flooding the market these days.



  Earshot Jazz Review  
By Steve Griggs  
Dee Daniels
State Of The Art

A recording of standards by vocalist Dee Daniels, State of the Art on Criss Cross Jazz is not neophyte music bending the boundaries of genre but rather a solid statement of mature personal artistry.

The great thing about Daniels is her sound – unique, dark and warm – and it fills every track. Her tone emanates from deep within her torso, her heart to be exact. Her voice is so enchanting that the words she sings almost don’t matter. Almost, but she does respect the lyric. Her inflections don’t ignore the songwriter’s words – they add color, spirit and soul. Daniels embodies the music, the sound becomes flesh.

Because the repertoire of standards is so familiar, listeners are free to marvel at the evergreen youthfulness and world wise breadth of Daniels’ life experience in her interpretation. She was belting jazz from the Seattle Opera House stage way back in 1974, circling the globe on her talent as she grew. Over the span of her ascending musical life, the sound of her distinct gracious voice spread to stages in Europe, Asia, and South America.

The generosity evident in her tone and delivery spills over to the dedication she devotes to students. She’s the artistic director of the annual DeMeiro Jazz Fest in Edmonds, Washington, founded the Dee Daniels Vocal Jazz Workshop in Sitka, Alaska, and has a Jazz Vocal Scholarship in her name at Capilano University, North Vancouver, BC, Canada, and will serve as an Adjunct Professor at the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College, New York.

After listening to State of the Art, I found myself singing “The Summer Wind” around the house and scrolling back several times to hear Daniels’ slowed down ballad version of the typically up-tempo “Cherokee.” With such a beautiful voice, why not take your time? In an era of increasing distraction and decreasing attention span, Daniels voice opens a door to savoring the act of listening here and now.



  The Jazz Chill Corner

Excellent work from Dee Daniels – a singer who’s been on the scene for more than a few years, but who really seems to be hitting her stride these days! The set’s got Daniels sounding tighter and more focused than ever – working with an excellent small combo that features Eric Alexander on tenor and Cyrus Chestnut on piano – both players who help bring a bite to the music that really seems to pull a lot out of Dee’s vocals! The set is actually the first-ever vocal session for the Criss Cross label – but feels like some lost set of soulful jazz from years back – the kind of set that some of the better indies used to give us back in the 80s and 90s, but which so few seem to be able to deliver these days. Dee’s great throughout – on the money, and really able to bring new life out of familiar tunes that include “Summer Wind”, “He Was Too Good To Me”, “Almost Like Being In Love”, “Lover Man”, and “Why Did I Choose You”. ~ Dusty Groove



  Jazz Society of Oregon  
By George Fendel and Jessica Rand  

State Of The Art; Dee Daniels, vocals.
You are the president of a well-respected, 30-plus-year-old jazz label called Criss Cross Records. During that span you have issued over 300 jazz recordings, and every single one has been an instrumental affair. So this release by singer Dee Daniels marks a first for the label and certainly something of an honor for her. Daniels is surrounded by a quartet that includes two young veterans in Eric Alexander, tenor sax, and Cyrus Chestnut, piano; and two newer names, Paul Beaudry, bass, and Alvester Garnett, drums. She has been singing songs like those heard on this album for many years, and all of that experience is evident in her phrasing, feeling, and overall delivery. Let’s put it this way: you know it when you hear it, and Dee Daniels, with no compromises, is a pure, real deal jazz singer. And who can argue with a menu of Songbook America gems that range from blues-drenched ballads such as “I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone,” “He Was too Good to Me,” and “Lover Man” to spirited entries such as “Almost Like Being in Love,” “Cheokee,” “I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart” and “How High the Moon.” A personal favorite is the lovely ballad, “Why Did I Choose You.” This long overlooked beauty has gained favor with singers in recent years, and Daniels gives it well-deserved respect. On all these and more, the first-ever vocal effort for Criss Cross is a winner.
Criss Cross Records, 2013; 59:31.



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