Not as elegantly expansive as vocalist Katie Bull's recent Love Spook but still lots of fun, Cup of Joe, No Bull shifts its source of incandescence from the pianists on the former CD to Ms. Bull's voice alone.
But there's props, due the atmosphere in which it burns, and that's Joe Fonda, one of this generation's most highly accomplished bassists (largely due to a spell in the Anthony Braxton small groups of the late eighties and early nineties). He lands happily in an expanded support role, adding vocal backup on Bull's cheerily silly "Shortcut Blues." Not that he's underused; the odd outrage opens some of the tracks here to good effect, and he never intrudes.
Consider the tone fields of a female voice and an acoustic bass; you aren't going to get a lot of overlap! It's a safe choice for a duo (I'm thinking of a recent not-so duet between a trombonist and a sax player; busier in the center, echoing on the fringes), but as we know you will get music to fill the room just fine from the configuration.
It would be nice if the music filled the brain, too. And this does, in a way mildly similar to Barry Guy and Evan Parker's recent two-CD live and studio explorations on Intakt, Birds and Blades. Of course, on that recording the veritable monsoon of improvisational ideas from the players provided the attention-grabbing.
Here, it's the dance between the songs and the musicians. Some of this is very inspired, some of it not so, largely thanks to the selection of standards (I just don't think there's a lot one can do that hasn't been done already with the closing "What a Wonderful World," sweet as this reading is). But the jolly bits far outweigh those that don't achieve transcendence, so I'd say give this one a try.
After listening to Ms. Bull's voice some more since reviewing Love Spook in a previous Jazz Now, I'd say that besides a bit of Ella Fitzgerald's dexterity, she also has the biting humor of former 'Til Tuesday vocalist Aimee Mann (now a folkie with teeth of sorts à la Ani diFranco). Both singers have access to a delightful yelp of sorts, and we hear that in the take of Ms. Bull's fine "Love Spook," an imaginative blues.
Ms. B wisely takes up some more space with improvisational flutters and grace notes, but never more than seems necessary (Cleo Laine fans need not apply here). In Jobim's "Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars" Fonda and Bull skirt wisely a major mistake committed by many interpreters of the bossa nova master: do a Jobim tune too fast or too slow and the magic withers.
A fleet take of "I'm Old-Fashioned" survives nicely elsewhere on this CD, but Fonda and Bull slow the tempo on "Quiet Nights" just enough so you can practically hear the stars drifting overhead. Very nice.
An example of a major tempo mistake would be a Kathleen Battle CD of some years back, in which "So Many Stars" turned from gold to lead under a largo cadence despite the lovely Ms. Battle's marvelous reading of the melody. Fonda and Bull are too smart for that, letting the tune, and by extension the listener, breathe.
"I Could have Danced All Night" has a pretty vocal reading (with a few words and beats dropped out here and there), but for my ears the true focus is Fonda's frog-hopping on the tune's interior tones: some implied, some not. Wonderful!
"Bluebird of Happiness" is a Bill Evans kind of choice in that we've pretty much forgotten about it so it's fresh again (we recall the late Evans revisiting "Emily" and "The Theme from M*A*S*H" decades ago and finding depths we'd once known were there); ditto for "When I Fall in Love" and Johnny Mercer's "Midnight Sun."
When these two are on, they simply can't miss, and that's the vast majority of the time here. Even the old children's nursery rhyme "Monkey Business" has some ear-popping bow action from Fonda.
Ms. Bull's own tracks ("When You Say You Will," "Shortcut Blues," "Speak Louder") essay blues structures but build on them by adding complications, melodic drop-outs, et al. "When You Say" takes the words "when you watch your watch" and runs them through an aural kaleidoscope; in comparison the chestnut "Since I Fell for You" emphasizes the sadness of the blues as opposed to its gospel-like release.
In my review of Love Spook I talked about the importance of standards as well as of their drawbacks; Ms. Bull and Mr. Fonda know these songs' areas of possibility and exploit them well.
Like I said before, give this a try
by Ken Egbert
Copyright Jazz Now, September 2005, all rights reserved.
Jazz Now Interactive September 2005 Vol 15 No. 5 - Table of Contents