Andrea Wolper

By Bill Donaldson

Andrea Wolper has been performing steadily in New York jazz clubs, but word of her talent hasn't spread beyond that city much, probably due to her busy involvement in other activities. Not only does Wolper sing-and sing with a distinctive style that appears to have developed through her own musical growth, rather than being strongly influenced by one or a few jazz singers of previous generations. But also, she writes books, articles and poetry, as well as being involved in human rights issues…and earning a black belt in karate. Fortunately, Wolper has turned her attention to recording again, for The Small Hours brings to our attention an artist who thinks about the music she performs, as she re-harmonizes it, changes the meters, tweaks the melodies and delves into the full range of meanings that the lyrics connote. Just as important, Wolper has recorded her first album since 1998 with musicians with whom she shares an obvious chemistry, so closely do they listen to each other and so like-minded are they in their pursuits of ideas that convey their own attitudes toward the songs that Wolper chose for The Small Hours. Indeed, the chemistry couldn't be righter, at least during the vocal/bass duo performance of "Rendezvous in Providence," due to the fact that Wolper sings it with husband Ken Filiano.

Filiano certainly is a strong presence on The Small Hours, but so are the other musicians, each of them contributing with individuality to the unified sense of purpose and the uncommon approach that Wolper establishes throughout the album. Though the lyricists' original intentions of the songs vary, from the usual spryness of "You and the Night and the Music" to the bluesiness of "Moanin'," Wolper has infused all of the music with her own smoldering understatement, as if the fire within remains under control, though the possibility of its ignition, or even its explosion, creates tension throughout the CD. Wolper's own voice establishes a unifying theme for the music. From the opening track, "Dancing on the Ceiling," to the end, Blossom Dearie's "I Like You, You're Nice," Wolper reworks all of the music she chose to record with an unrushed, sultry sense of discovery, as if she were spontaneously choosing new directions for improvisation as the album was recorded. On songs like "Crazy Love," Wolper no doubt can't avoid comparisons to Cassandra Wilson as she brushes the song with burnished hues, stretching the phrasing, taking her time to express the feeling she found in the song when she rediscovered it, investing the music with a reservoirs of underlying feeling that the words imply through incorporation of blues sensibilities.

Wolper has developed a unique approach for performing all of the songs on The Small Hours, though the pace of the rhythm and the refinement of her own alto remain constant. It would be tempting to choose several favorites from her song list, but that would be unfair. All of her arrangements are entirely original, not copying from anyone else, but rather making her own personality a vital component of the music. Some listeners may be struck by what she has done with Bobby Timmons' "Moanin'." Just as it seems that the song is known and all future versions must be based on the past, Wolper begins the song with an introduction beyond recognition. Then it unfurls exceedingly slowly in long extended lines into which Wolper does add, yes, some moanin', but also a wise and sympathetic explication of the lyrics, as if the song were a field blues, rather than a snappy jazz piece of anticipated accents (which disappear in her version).

But then, there's her most personal composition on the CD, "Rendezvous in Providence," a duet with Filiano. Her song consists almost entirely of wordless singing as she creates a mood, a scene, without describing it, until in its middle she quotes the poem by D. Nurkse. Rising above the prodding bass lines, Wolper seems fleetingly to go microtonal, wavering between the defined pitches, as if a raga were inspired by the providence of the poem. And then on "You and the Night and the Music," her interest in, if not influence by, the possibilities of raga burst into the open. For Wolper abandons all the familiar underpinnings of the song as she re-fashions it with Lou Marini's breathy flute, Affif's sitar-like lines without a sitar's overtones and Victor Lewis's haunting hand drumming. Rather than singing a song, Wolper creates an atmosphere consistent with the song's title, unlike other interpretations, as she wavers between its Western origins and her Hindu-influenced interpretation, the words becoming material for arohana and the notes surrendering to the technical demands of samavadi, as if she were evoking the moods of the evening through song. Consistent with Wolper's evocation of the feelings of the evening, she includes a rarely sung June Christy song, "Night Time Was My Mother," though sung in a more conventional jazz context. Associating music with family, lyrics like "Night time was my mother./Music was my brother./Then I found another who belonged to me./He's a friend I'll never lose./I welcome old man blues./To the family" imply the similar sense of darkness and mystery and loneliness as many of the other songs on The Small Hours.

With Andrea Wolper's musical essay about the feelings from the night, she has made her return to recording something special, as producer Todd Barkan no doubt recognizes. Her smartness at reinterpreting standards or writing her own music, not to mention her sophisticated coolness, has created a recording unlike any other, and it does deserve attention from jazz listeners.

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