Los Angeles singer Gretje Angell’s debut …in any key (Grevlinto Records) comes as a surprise and a delight. A surprise because by her own admission she’s turned to jazz somewhat belatedly in her performing life and a delight because this debut is that good.

Raised on her father’s jazz records, alongside his kit (her late father was Akron, Ohio drummer Tommy Voorhees), Angell studied classical voice and has performed roles with the Los Angeles Metropolitan Opera. What she borrows from her classical training is a granular vocal precision that not all jazz singers can master; she tackles each phrase with poise and dexterity, without sacrificing the creamy timbre of the voice. What positions her solidly in the jazz idiom is her highly developed ability to improvise—not a skill that gets much of a workout on opera stages. That she can step into jazz as a fully formed scat singer is remarkable.

On the album, Angell’s nine standards feature guitar-based arrangements; she uses strings and trumpet on one tune—the Van Heusen/DeLange ballad “Deep in a Dream”—but for the most part the settings for her vocals are spare, clean, and complementary. Angell excels at Latin feels, as in the engaging “Berimbau”, in spot-on Portuguese, and the brisk “One Note Samba”. Which isn’t to suggest any shortcomings elsewhere—she turns out smooth, percussive scat lines on the Tracy/Tauber/Pinkard up-tempo “Them There Eyes” and swings with ease on Ellington’s “Do Nothing ‘Til You Hear from Me”. In truth, Angell’s out-of-the-gate effort is a rare first album. It’s just right.      

Vocalist Sara Gazarek, another Los Angeles talent, champions the same strengths as Angell—gorgeous tone, expert soloing chops, a careful ear for flattering arrangements. Her career has progressed differently, though: She received laudatory national attention as a vocal jazz student at University of Southern California in the early aughts and her first album, Yours (Native Language), in 2005, was a breakout success. This Aug. 23 Gazarek will release her sixth album, Thirsty Ghost (s/p); she describes it as “the first record that has ever truly felt like my voice, my sound, and my heart”. A strong admission. She explains that after suffering some extreme personal losses she could no longer sing the light-hearted melodies she was known for; on this recording she needed to express a raw, darker side of her personality. Thus there’s heartbreak in her renderings of tunes like “I Get Along without You Very Well” and “Lonely Hours”; determination in the confrontational “Jolene”; and vulnerability in the gripping Björk song, “Cocoon”. Gazarek be in New York to perform from the album at Jazz Standard on Aug. 10.

Hollywood denizen Seth MacFarlane, creator of the animated sitcom Family Guy, is all about crooning romance when it comes to his vocal recordings—the anti-thesis of his TV fare. On Once In A While (Verve) he runs through a baker’s dozen of standards like “I Remember You” and “What’ll I Do?”, his deep baritone enveloped in luxuriant string arrangements by conductor Andrew Cottee. Recorded at famed Abbey Roads Studio in London, the album touches on MacFarlane’s own feelings of love and loss, and as with Gazarek and Thirsty Ghost, MacFarlane cannot hide his sentiment on Once In A While.  As he admits in the liner notes, “It’s all in there, folks”.

Singer Peter Eldridge and pianist Kenny Werner both used to teach at NYC institutions of higher learning, Manhattan School of Music and New York University, respectively. Now colleagues at Berklee College of Music in Boston, the two have paired up to record Somewhere (Rosebud Music), a fully orchestrated album of standards and standard-sounding originals. Like the two preceding releases, this album explores aching emotions; on this one Werner’s at times buoyant interjections and the soothing comfort of the strings act as palliatives. Even hearts can heal.

Other travelers: DeeDee Bridgewater visits New York to play Birdland on Aug.  6-10 and the Summerstage’s Charlie Parker Jazz Festival at Marcus Garvey Park on Aug. 24. Brianna Thomas, Peoria native who now lives in New York, has August gigs that overlap with Bridgewater’s; she’ll sing at Grant’s Tomb with Jazzmobile on Aug. 7 and then at Summerstage on Aug. 23. New Orleans-based singer/drummer Jamison Ross, jazz vocalists’ favorite non-jazz vocalist, plays Jazz Standard on Aug. 8-9, and Aussie-bred bassist/singer Nicki Parrot unveils her new album at Birdland Theater Aug. 8-10.

(Reprinted from the August 2019 issue of New York City Jazz Record)