In an art form awash with ingenues and shiny singers newly minted from music school, Ellen Robinson emergences as a breath of fresh air. With her new album Dont Wait Too Long, the Oakland jazz vocalist makes a convincing case for the value of life experience as a template for reimagining American Songbook standards and more contemporary fare. Displaying impressive skills as a songwriter, she also infuses hard-won wisdom in original tunes. Like her two previous releases, Dont Wait Too Long was produced by the sure hand of drummer and veteran DJ Bud Spangler. It is the work of a late-blooming artist with a clear, heartfelt vision, exquisite taste, and lovely voice that lingers in your ear long after the music has finished.
Recorded live at Freight and Salvage in Berkeley CA, the album captures the vivacious singer with her highly sympathetic band featuring articulate bassist Sam Bevan, versatile drummer Dan Foltz, the unabashedly lyrical saxophonist Kristen Strom, and pianist Murray Low, one of the most sought after accompanists in the SF Bay Area. Focusing on ballads with sinuous melodies, Robinson sustains a dreamy mood with a deceptively unadorned style, eschewing vocal acrobatics and scat solos in favor of close attention to melodies and emotionally insightful phrasing. Exploring a program laden with unexpected treasures, she distills the essence of each song.
I have to feel connected to the lyrics. I am not a gymnastic singer. I do like taking a straight ahead jazz tune or a pop tune and making it my own. I pick songs that feel inclusive, so that sometimes steers me in a little different direction in terms of my repertoire.
The album opens with Dance Only With Me, a rarely sung gem by Jule Styne, Betty Comden, and Adolph Greene from the 1958 Broadway comedy Say, Darling about the making of a Broadway musical. She turns the song into a wistful reverie, far more a whispered prayer than an imperious demand. Even when Robinson interprets familiar material, like the Lerner and Loewe standard Almost Like Being in Love, or the Johnny Burke and Jimmy Van Heusen tune But Beautiful, she unveils new shades of meaning in the lyrics, letting the tunes unfold at deliciously languorous tempos.
When Robinson takes liberties with a song, like her slyly re-harmonized version of the Irving Berlin tune Be Careful Its My Heart (from the 1942 Bing Crosby film Holiday Inn, which also introduced White Christmas), she does not so much reinvent it as highlight the playfully imploring lyric. She transforms songs of more recent vintage too, like her jazz appropriation of the mid-60s pop hit Our Day Will Come, which she delivers with righteous conviction. Robinson wisely takes the Joni Mitchell setting for the Rudyard Kipling poem If as is, dispensing his timeless advice to the gently incantatory melody of Mitchell.
Listening to the album without looking at the credits, one might be very surprised to discover that Robinson contributes three original songs, so seamlessly do they fit in with the standards. Soon sounds like it was lifted directly from the first act of a classic Broadway musical, as the tension builds between a couple fated to take the plunge into romance. And with its lithe, insistently tuneful melody, the briskly swinging Tick Tock offers the kind of wisdom a character achieves in the third act, when busy activity gives way to reflection (thoughtfulness that is echoed in Kristen Strom as she beautifully plays her economical tenor solo).
It is such a thrill to write a song and bring it to the band. I am very collaborative. We try different things. I am really proud of the fact that I write my own charts, and that I can put my name on some of these songs.
Ellen Robinson Blog