The New Orleans jazz scene is in a constant state of renewal, as indigenous sounds and traditions seduce new generations of locals and transplants alike. Two women on the scene -- Julia La Shae and Linnzi Zaorski -- are the latest to put their stamp on timeless favorites and provide an interesting contrast to song staples that fill the setlists on local bandstands.
As the partner of swing bandleader Johnny Angel, vocalist La Shae knows a thing or two about dusting off classics. La Shae, Angel and the Swingin' Demons band were the most high-profile practitioners of swing music when Brian Setzer and the Cherry Poppin' Daddies helped bring it back to the national forefront in the late '90s. For La Shae's debut solo CD, Introducing ... Julia La Shae, she's going retro down a different road, singing standards from the likes of Gershwin and Billie Holiday in a lush setting.
With backing from an accomplished group of musicians including pianist Leslie Martin, bassist Tim Paco, guitarist Dan Anderson, drummer Mark Morris and reedman Charlie Fardella, Shae makes a transformation from swingstress to songbird. For anyone familiar with her exuberant vamping with Angel, La Shae's new work is pure restraint. Here she sings in whispering, almost hushed tones on tracks like "The Very Thought of You" and "How Long Has This Been Going On." She downplays any vocal gymnastics for more straight-ahead readings suited for the supper-club set. (That's a crowd La Shae's familiar with, thanks to her gigs at local martini haven/restaurant the Bombay Club.)
The procession of songs is straight out of the American standards canon, ruminations on love such as "It Could Happen to You," "Blue Skies" and "God Bless the Child." The backing instrumentation is as delicate and understated as La Shae's delivery, as soft as the satin-sheet motif running through the album's artwork.
The inherent challenge in performing these songs -- especially a whole album filled with them -- is inevitable comparison to the legendary versions by La Shae's predecessors. And on that count, La Shae hasn't done a disservice to the songs or performers like Holiday, but in hearing the songs given such restrained treatment, it's hard not to occasionally wish for a burst of vocal bravado or palpable despair. With the exception of a hint of a growl midway through "I Can't Give You Anything But Love," La Shae shelves her swing and R&B muscles throughout the album. Is this delicate wisp her true jazz personality? Guess we'll have to wait for her sophomore jazz album to find out.
Her peer Linnzi Zaorski has honed a presentation that swings the stylistic pendulum in the opposite direction. Zaorski is part of the edgy and energetic trad-jazz scene at the Spotted Cat on Frenchmen Street, where bands like the New Orleans Jazz Vipers are pumping up New Orleans' most famous musical export with hip Faubourg Marigny attitude. And with her debut self-titled CD, Zaorski's blossoming into one of the movement's leading lights.
Zaorski's reminiscent of her peer Ingrid Lucia, thanks to an arresting voice and unique vocal timbres. Like Lucia, Zaorski can project a child-like sense of wonder, or impart a wry, almost conversational singing style that would probably make Danny Barker proud. It's simultaneously girlish and powerful, and when Zaorski skips and saunters her way though a standard like "The Way You Look Tonight," it sounds brand new. She's also assembled a formidable band featuring guitarist Seva Venet, bassist Robert Snow, saxophonists and clarinetist Ryan Burrage, and (deja vu) trumpeter Charlie Fardella. The drumless format gives songs like Hoagy Carmichael's "Rockin' Chair" an airy, full ambience that's the perfect match for Zaorski's voice.
What's even more surprising is that the album seamlessly blends seven live tracks recorded at the Spotted Cat, and six studio tracks recorded at the Truck Farm Studio. (Truck Farm engineer Andrew Gilchrist helped shepherd the live recording.) Listening to the CD, it's startling to hear the applause on the live performances. In that respect, Zaorski and her debut CD do what the best live jazz does: transport you to a different, magical place, until you're compelled to clap at its beauty.