This past spring, singers Urszula Dudziak, Michele Hendricks, Jay Clayton, and Norma Winstone reconvened their 1980s free improv a cappella group, Vocal Summit, for a European tour. Besides these four singers, the ensemble in various incarnations has included Jeanne Lee, Bobby McFerrin, Lauren Newton, Leon Thomas, and Bob Stoloff. Only two recordings of these historic collaborations exist: Live at Willisau: Conference of the Birds (ITM Pacific) and Sorrow Is Not Forever—Love Is (Moers Music). But two of the ensemble’s core members—Clayton and Winstone—just happen to be Sunnyside artists, and of late Sunnyside has been reissuing some key titles from its catalogue, some Clayton and Winstone records among them.
Last month Sunnyside re-released three of Winstone’s albums from the 1990s: First, from 1993, is Well Kept Secret, a handful of lesser-done standards featuring pianist Jimmy Rowles on piano, bassist George Mraz, drummer Joe La Barbera, and Rowles daughter Stacy on flugelhorn. On this landmark album Winstone first presented her lyrics to Rowles’ most well-known instrumental composition, “The Peacocks,” which she renamed “A Timeless Place”—a beseeching ballad that captures Winstone at her most expressive and heart-wrenching. (This year Jazzmeia Horn, 2013 winner of the Sarah Vaughan Competition, included this tune on her debut album, A Social Call, for Prestige Records.) Next, from 1996, a duo album with Winstone’s longtime collaborator, pianist John Taylor, Like Song, Like Weather. Winstone and Taylor had been key figures in the free improv movement of the 1970s; their interpretations of the standards on this disc play subtly with rhythm and texture as they move effortlessly in and out of the known musical structures of the tunes. Last, Manhattan In The Rain, a warm, straight-ahead Songbook recording from 1997 with simple piano, bass, and horn accompaniment, demonstrates Winstone’s ease with traditional jazz idioms. Taken together, these three albums offer a tantalizing taste of this influential singer’s almost five decades of composing, performing, and recording. Some more, please.
Clayton’s output is no less impressive. On the heel’s of Sunnyside’s re-release of her 1994 album with pianist Fred Hersch, Beautiful Love (reviewed in the October VoxNews column), this month the label is launching Clayton’s Unraveling Emily, a duo album with composer/pianist Kirk Nurock. On this recording the pair uses improvisation, spoken word, avant-garde vocalizations, and electronic effects as a setting for the poetry of Emily Dickinson; notably, Clayton offers up a new interpretation of the poem “I’m Nobody,” originally one of the seven tunes on Vocal Summit’s Conference of the Birds. The recent incarnation of the piece, this time by Nurock, is more compact and stylized, speaking both to changes in recording technology and Clayton’s talent for innovation.
Almost 10 years after Clayton, Winstone also recorded a duo album with Hersch for Sunnyside: Songs & Lullabies in 2003. Julie Benko, whose pianist/co-producer Jason Yeager studied with Hersch at New England Conservatory of Music, so loved one of Hersch’s tunes from this album that she added it to her regular repertoire. Her touching rendition of the moody ballad “A Wish,” with lyrics by Winstone, is only one of 11 standout performances on her recently released debut jazz CD, Introducing Julie Benko (s/p). Benko, a Broadway actor and singer, won first place in the American Traditions Competition in Savannah, Georgia, this year in part on the strength of five tunes from this album, including “A Wish.” The album contains several surprising turns, not the least of which is Benko’s talented songwriting on three originals.
In 2015, Nicole Zuraitis also put in a good showing at the ATC, placing as a finalist, and later that year she ranked as a second runner-up in the Sarah Vaughan Competition. Zuraitis is the rare singer who can give just about any genre its due technically; she sings an operatic role with the same apparent ease that she digs into a complicated scat solo. This month she releases her latest album, Hive Mind (Dot Time), a stunning collection of nine powerful pop-jazz originals and a lone cover—a jazz version of "Jolene," one of her winning ATC numbers. Zuraitis will present Hive Mind at Drom on Nov. 12, at the same time that this year's Sarah Vaughan Competition will be happening across the Hudson River at NJPAC.
(Reprinted from the November 2017 issue of The New York City Jazz Record.)