The other day I happened across a CD of a singer whose name was new to me. As readers of this blog know, I'm pretty picky about the singers I listen to. I like my female vocalists authentic, earthy and deeply meaningful. I can't help it. My ears are spoiled and can instantly separate the fakers from the achers. I also favor jazz singers over pop or cabaret warblers. The difference for me is that jazz singers are bruised fruit, sideswiped by life, love and misfortune. They are underdogs. That's what makes them authentic storytellers.
So when I put on You Don't Know Me by Rebecca Parris, I was taken aback. Parris clearly is life-worn. I don't know her personally, but you sense she must be the victim of a few things. You can't sing like this unless you've been there, done that—and a few other things. Parris also is clearly a student of the greats. You can hear Shirley Horn, Carmen McRae and other close-quarters singers who could bring a club to near tears with a song interpretation.
Parris, 58, is from Newton, Mass., and studied at the Boston Conservatory. According to her website, she has performed with Dizzy Gillespie, Buddy Rich, Woody Herman, Terry Gibbs, David "Fathead" Newman, Gerry Wiggins and Nat Pierce, She also is best known in Boston, where she has won the Boston Music Awards nine times. So shame on me for being out of touch.
You Don't Know Me (2007) is Parris' eighth CD. She's backed here by Brad Hatfield (piano, synthesizer), Peter Kontrimas (bass) and Matt Gordy (drums)—with appearances by vibraphonist Gary Burton and tenor saxophonist Houston Person [pictured], who join Parris on three tracks each. Saxophonist Jerry Bergonzi is on five tracks. The guest instrumentalists work perfectly with the singer, whose full, deep voice has the feel of a comfortable sofa.
Every song Parris takes on is given new meaning. Dig her Weaver of Dreams, Lush Life and My Ship. Each song requires careful gem-cutting and is loaded with traps if a singer rushes or falters. Instead, Parris digs deep and produces versions that are experienced and fresh. Or dig her versions of Don't Go to Strangers and Desafinado. Opposite ends of the spectrum, yet Parris brings gorgeous new meaning to both. She uses hesitation like a minx but then opens up in other places, winning you over with her solid command and coffee-rich vibrato.
This is jazz singing in the grand tradition, but with a conversational approach that hits you straight on. Rebecca Parris is fresh and fearless.
JazzWax tracks: You'll find Rebecca Parris' You Don't Know Me at iTunes or at Amazon here. Trust me, you're going to be as shocked as I was when you hear it. Sample and see for yourself.
JazzWax clip: Here's Rebecca Parris singing All My Tomorrows...