Heavy Falls the Night
Do Right! Music
Jazz, but not jazz. It's a confusing way to describe the music of Toronto's Elizabeth Shepherd. So much of jazz relies on improvisation — the sudden kicking of a bass drum, the rapid descent of the horn's solo over the beat — that the tightly measured compositions of this singer-pianist at first seem to defy the expectations or the requirements of the genre.
Plenty of pop-oriented singer-songwriters dabble in jazz: Norah Jones and Lisa Stansfield come to mind. But on Shepherd's third studio album, she comes off as the opposite — a jazz virtuoso blessed with a pop sensibility, making the decision to favor song structure over instrumentals. As she told Exclaim! Magazine this spring: "It doesn't need everyone's two cents' worth, the bass solo ... that seems really formulaic after a while."
Shepherd's had plenty of success in Japan and Europe (including a performance at Tokyo's legendary Cotton Club and an opening gig for Jamie Cullum at the Hollywood Bowl earlier this summer), but Heavy Falls the Night may be her shot at mainstream success — or as close as a jazz pianist can get. The funky notes of "What Else" that open the album announce the method to her precise madness: the irregularity of a 3/4 meter coupled with an R&B radio-ready instrumental hook. On "One More Day," the bassline comes off at first like it was penned by Stevie Wonder. But it's her voice that's spotlighted, not the music, as her vocals are allowed to meander through the verses, before culminating in a perfect bossa nova-esque chorus.
That doesn't mean fans of jazz swoops and surprises won't find anything to like of Heavy Falls the Night. On "It's Coming," Motown-esque backup vocals chiming in with their "Comin', comin', comin' again" are paired with what sounds like a metallophone solo and '70s Village Vanguard-esque piano flairs. Similarly, she allows her key-tapping fingers to wander on "The Taking," one of the songs jazz traditionalists — and those who like to dance — will find themselves repeating.
Two of her songs were written with the help of James Strecker, and one's a standout. Shepherd tells the Toronto Star that the two met at a jazz festival, and he sent her a book of poems he wrote about jazz musicians. "An Ode to Dinah Washington" is loveliest song on the record, and also the most intimate (partly because the studio mics are staged close enough for us to hear the strings of the bass revertebrating). While the words are, to be succinct, poetry — "I got nothing on the weather / Got moon and stars above / Can't do this thing called lonely / I can do this thing called love" — it's her torchy singing, reminiscent of last call at a New York nightclub, that makes this song an instant classic. Some songs are written for rainy Sunday mornings, and "A Song For Dinah Washington" is one of them.
One minor misstep, however, is the cover of that classic rock standard (if you can call it that) — "Danny's Song." While Shepherd is probably wise to steer clear of the tune's inherent preciousness, her languorous interpretation comes off as more of an easy listening tune for the holiday shopping mall crowd. All in all, however, this is a remarkable album, and Elizabeth Shepherd might just be one thing the jazz purists and the lovers of three-minute pop songs can have in common. Appearing 10/2 at Detroit's Cliff Bell's. — Ashley C. Woods
Worth a listen: "An Ode for Dinah Washington" & "The Taking"