Dynamic, Cleverly Erudite Jazz Chanteuse Audrey Bernstein Brings a Killer Band to the Rockwood

by delarue

A little New York music history: back in the early zeros, one of the best bands playing around what was then an incredibly fertile Lower East Side rock scene was Douce Gimlet. With frontman Joe Ben Plummer’s kitchen-sink songwring – sad country ballads, catchy janglerock anthems, and droll, cinematic instrumental miniatures – the band is long overdue to be rediscovered by a new generation. Why aren’t they better remembered? Probably because so little of their music exists online.

One of the most popular parts of their live set would be when baritone saxophonist Paula Henderson would lead them into a saucy stripper vamp and Plummer would bring up a special guest, “The songbird of the night time, who lights up the Manhattan skyline…the beloved Audrey Rose.” And Audrey Bernstein would take the stage and join in on a fetching duet on The Wedding Song, a slow, plaintive country ballad. And although Bernstein isn’t a country singer – she’s a jazz chanteuse, and a mighty good one – she’d knock it out of the park, night after night.

The years went by, the group disbanded and then Plummer died under cloudy circumstances that were never properly investigated. Meanwhile, Bernstein moved to Los Angeles and became one of the most fascinating, individualistic jazz singers around. What makes her different? For one, she writes her own songs. And you know how some jazz songbirds sing everything the exact same way? Lovey-dovey boudoir overkill, right? Bernstein sings in character: she’s a great storyteller, she mines new and unexpected content from old standards and she’s practically a different singer from number to number. She can go from misty, to disarmingly clear and direct, to coy and enticing, depending on how the story goes. As much as that takes fearsome vocal technique, what’s most impressive is how she puts those chops to work to deliver an emotional wallop…or just a wink, or a chuckle. She’s put together a tremendously good band: Brian Charette taking a rare turn on piano, plus Sean Harkness on guitar, Daniel Glass on drums, and Steve Doyle on bass for a show on July 12 at 8:30 PM at the third stage at the Rockwood. Cover is $10 plus a $10 drink minimum.

Bernestein’s latest album is Alright, Okay, You Win, streaming at her webpage. One prime example of Bernstein as storyteller is how suspensfully she builds the litany of images in Jobim’s The Waters of March up to an ending that’s just short of ecstatic, bouncing along with some neatly counterinituitive drumming from Geza Carr and Joe Capps’ gently purist guitar. Likewise, her airy, wary approach to Detour Ahead, over Tom Cleary’s similarly judicious, subtly apprehensive piano: that it’s not fullscale Lynchian noir is what draws you in, waiting for something to jump out of the wee-hours shadows. Bernstein and Cleary follow the same trajectory, from overcast to tenderly misty, on Melody Gardot’s Love Is Easy.

Bernstein’s take of Comes Love is both rich with history and a clinic in subtlety: she gives it a matter-of-fact, vintage Molly Picon charm that harks back to the song’s klezmer roots, but without going over the top into vaudeville. Bernstein’s lone original here, Oh the Money, is arguably the album’s best track, a darkly scurrying, bitingly direct blues shuffle.

Bernstein kicks off the album with a jauntily insistent jump-blues take of Too Close for Comfort with scampering trumpet from Ray Vega and piano from Cleary. ‘Deed I Do gets a more dynamically rich interpretation than most oldtimey swing singers give it, Bernstein maxing out her bluesy wiggle-room, alto saxophonist Michael Zsoldos maintaining the vibe. She goes even further, Dinah Washington-style, in that direction on the title track, trumpeter Joey Sommerville pushing a joyously dixieland-inspired horn arrangement.

Bernstein channels raw, undiluted duende on a moody take of You Don’t Know What Love Is, yet with a restraint that makes it all the more poignant, matched by John Rivers’ carefully pulsing bass and Cleary’s lingering, angst-tinged lines. The album’s balmiest number is the steadily swinging You Made Me Love You, lowlit by Sommerville’s sax; and them Bernstein goes unexpectedly chirpy and clever as it winds out. There’s also a bonus track, a nebulously low-key guitar-and-vocal take of I Want a Sunday Kind of Love.

Fun fact: Bernstein’s sense of adventure extends to the kitchen. She’s got a bunch of tempting recipes here.

 

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