Allegra Levy Invents Her Own Classic Vocal Jazz Songcraft
Singer and jazz composer Allegra Levy is a big-picture person. Her debut album Lonely City – streaming at Spotify – is less about the absence of affection and those who might provide it than it is about fullscale alienation. On a philosophical level, this New York jazz stylist captures the soul-crushing reality of a city where jazz artists under 40 are a rarity. On one level, there’s no lack of an indigenous talent base, as there should be in a city of ostensibly eight million. On the other, even native-born artists like Levy have never faced such a rigorous challenge simply paying the bills. Maybe that’s why she jumped at the chance to do a longterm Hong Kong gig last year. Singing in a cool, protean, enigmatic alto with a talented band behind her, she’s playing Cornelia Street Cafe on August 18 at 8:30 PM; cover is $10 plus a $10 minimum.
What sets Levy apart from the hundreds of women scatting around with microphones is that she writes her own songs: every number on the album is an original, no small achievement. The opening track is a sophisticated, swinging take on a cabaret sound that goes back to the 30s. “Anxiety, stay the hell away from me!” Levy warns, guitarist Steve Cardenas taking a ratber furtive solo that tenor saxophonist Adam Kolker picks up more lightheartedly. The snide I Don’t Want to Be in Love has mambo tinges and a scampering groove fueled by drummer Richie Barshay, trumpeter John Bailey and pianist Carmen Staaf: “Someone wake me from this nightmare!” Levy insists.
She opens the early 70s-style soul-jazz ballad Everything Green with some balmy vocalese, a trick intro as it turns out: as Mark Feldman’s violin dances overhead, Levy musing about carving out a safe space amidst the stress. “I don’t want to die alone,” is the mantra on the outro.
A New Face works a familiar, vampy postbop latin swing, Levy dipping into the lows with some clever wordplay: “Antiquity is where I long to be, take me back to our ancient history,” she smiles. She goes in the other direction on the languid Why Do I: “Why do I stumble when you say something humble, or you fidget or you mumble,”Levy ponders, and follows the tangent down from there.
“Time has treated me a bit too coldly,” Levy admits in A Better Day, a study in how a band can resist the temptation to just cut loose and swing the hell out of a song: it’s fun to hear how it inches that way, little by little, Levy adding some jaunty, clear-voiced scatting. The album’s tour de force is the melismatic, noir-tinged ballad I’m Not Okay: Levy’s damaged existentialist heroine looks straight back to Blossom Dearie, vibewise if not stylistically.
Clear-Eyed Tango (as opposed to the blurry-eyed kind, one supposes) is closer to circus rock, or, say, the sardonic Coney Island phantasmagoria of Carol Lipnik, Feldman adding an aptly menacing solo. The album’s title track blends clave jazz with some unexpected Asian flavor, “Drowning in the crowd of the hungry and the persevering…what is this goal that we’re all trying to battle for?” Levy wants to know. Our Lullaby is a head-scratcher – what guy wants to rest his head on a girl’s knee? The final cut is The Duet, a gorgeous chamber jazz ballad fueled by bassist Jorge Roeder’s ambered bowing. On one level, Levy is as retro as they get. On another, the world is overdue for how much fresh air she’s breathing into a time-tested idiom. Those who like the classics won’t find her hopelessly lost in the hashtag generation; likewise, those from this generation who might think what she does is dated are in for a serious wake-up call.