REVIEW OF AMERICAN LULLABY
Vol. 31 No. 2, February 2005
Apparently a debut recording for Veronica Nunn. According to her web site, to which I referred in the absence of substantive liner notes, she started singing in public at age 9, arrived in New York City right before her 20th birthday, where while working on a B.A. in Theology, she found time to sing on the cabaret circuit for six years, eventually enrolling as a protégé of Big Nick Nicholas through whose good graces her entry into the great wide world of Jazz was realized.
The timeline given in the site’s bio is sketchy, but indicates that somewhere along the line she spent five years in Switzerland as part of a duo, singing “Jazz and original tunes of strong R & B and Rock & Roll origin,” as well as playing original material with a group of her own. Back in New York, she continued to pursue the Jazz muse, ultimately hooking up with Michael Franks, with whom she has “toured the world since 1993 (and been) featured on several of the duets he has written.” On this, her “new solo album” (as her website describes it), she certainly validates her cabaret credentials, while earning solid Jazz credits.
Though her website annotator suggests her voice is “reminiscent of early Abbey Lincoln and Carmen McRae,” I found her vocal approach to suggest Audra McDonald unleashed, which is never truer than in the surprising Jazzification of Stephen Sondheim’s “Finch” (from “Sweeney Todd”), which is often treated as if it were simply intended as a showcase for the resident soprano’s vocal virtuosity. Nunn and company clearly have other ideas and slice neatly through the song’s self-mocking air of melodic hyperbole (perfectly appropriate in the context of the show) with a healthy rhythmic surge, in the midst of which Kebbi Williams plays some bristling post-Trane tenor.
My bet is that Sondheim, himself, would heartily approve. The opening medley contains more Sondheim, and the intertwining of Gladys Rich’s lovely “Lullaby” with “Not While” (also from “Sweeney Todd”) comes off as seamlessly as a hand-sewn Bendel Bonnet, with more strong tenoring from Williams as a bonus. Ms. Nunn can swing, as she demonstrates on “Don’t” and “Wonderful,” both featuring even more gritty tenor from Williams, as well as some Fuller-some slide from Ron Westray. “Living Room,” by Abbey Lincoln and Max Roach, is a marvelous track, with a succinctly direct vocal attack from Nunn and a beautifully resolved trombone statement from Westray. Ms. N. sings “Meaning” as well as it can be sung, but “Porgy” is a slight letdown, in that she seems to be avoiding the song’s inherent pathos, by replacing the lyric’s edgy desperation with an inappropriate air of rhapsodic serenity. Certainly, Ms. Nunn is familiar with “Porgy & Bess” and knows what the song is all about, in terms of Bess’ triangular love life predicament. “You Know” is the singer’s own tune, and “Joy” a collaborative effort with Gerald Niewood. Both indicate that Ms. Nunn is as clear-headed and aesthetically economical in composing and lyric writing as she is in employing her voice.
The resident husband, Travis Shook, accompanies his wife on piano throughout and is as empathetically attentive as a soulmate could possibly be. His percussive solo on “Joy,” and his carefully placed intimations of dissonance on “Meaning” indicate he has his own distinctive musical story to tell. Jennifer Vincent and Jaz Sawyer complete a rhythm team that takes each turn of the vocal road crisply and cleanly. Unmistakably, this is an exceptional debut, even factoring in the somewhat flawed reading of “Porgy.” It’s so good, in fact, that one is tempted to suggest Nunn quit right now, while she’s clearly ahead. I assume she’ll do no such thing, of course, and find myself already anticipating her next release.
– Alan Bargebuhr