Jazz Songwriter/Vocalist Allegra Levy Adds to the Canon with Her Haunting Breakthrough Album
Allegra Levy seems to be shooting for a franchise on heartbreak. For anybody who’s been blindsided – and let’s be honest, who hasn’t – she sings your life back to you.
She’s an anomaly in the vocal jazz world, a strong original songwriter who’d rather sing her own material than standards from decades ago. Her low-key, moody 2014 debut album Lonely City captured the downside of romance against a purist, trad backdrop. Her new album Cities Between Us – streaming at Spotify – swings harder and has more optimism, but there’s no evading the darkness in her writing.
Her lyrics are uncommonly smart, full of striking imagery and a pervasive angst. As all first-rate jazz vocalists do, she sings in character, word by word, line by line: you would think that other jazz singers would have a similarly meticulous, emotionally attuned approach, but unfortunately most of them don’t. You can tell that she’s listened to Sarah Vaughan – her low register is stronger here than on the debut album – and Ella Fitzgerald, but she doesn’t sound like either of them. Her distinctive, unadorned mezzo-soprano is on the soft and misty side. She’s playing the album release show tonight, April 8 at 7:30 PM at Club Bonafide on 52nd Street. The trains are as much of a mess this weekend as they’ve been in decades, but serendipitously, the 4 and 6 trains are running, meaning that if you’re on those lines or can get to them, you’ll have no problem getting to the show. Cover is $15.
Levy wears her heart on her sleeve. What do we know about her? She’s in her twenties, New York born and raised, very bright, and not shallow. Closeness and relationships are very important to her. She finally found one – in Hong Kong, during a long-running money gig. If the album is to be believed, she left the boyfriend behind, at least for awhile. But while this is a very personal album, it’s not couplecore -or singlecore, if such thing exists, ugh. Levy’s narrative transcends the backstory. Cherry Tree, the catchy midtempo swing tune that opens the album, sets the stage: its melodic allusions to Walking in a Winter Wonderland are apt.
Does your bark recall
Every time you had a scrape or fall?
…this winter blows my confidence
Colors faded and I lost my defense…
Tenor saxophonist Stephen Riley, bassist Jay Anderson and drummer Billy Drummond all get terse, low-key solos, which also sets the stage in the sense that this is a band effort rather than a singer with a backing unit.
Like Dorian Devins, Levy likes to pen her own lyrics to well-known jazz tunes. Carmen Staaf’s soft-soled, bar’s-about-to-close piano pairs with Levy’s tender, wounded delivery in her take of Duke Jordan’s Lullaby of the Orient: Levy really nails the surrealism of returning to Manhattan after being out of the country for awhile. Missing her boo, she heads down to Chinatown for solace: “Back home feels much too small, when I hear the whole world call.” The way she lets the song’s final line resonate, with just a tinge of vibrato, will give you chills.
Staaf’s lingering, broodingly modal chords contrast with Kirk Knuffke’s fluttering cornet and Riley’s balmy lines in another midtempo swing number, I Shouldn’t Tell You: “I shouldn’t lean so hard against you when I need someone else to care.”
The real classic here is the jaunty bolero-swing tune Misery Makes the Music, a jazz counterpart to Elisa Peimer’s similarly witty folk-rock tune, Good Song. Levy could always write a good song when she was disconsolate, but now she’s worried about losing her edge now that she’s happy: “What’s a song without some bite?” That perfectly capsulizes the appeal of her music.
Yesterdays has an insistent, upbeat swing and a lot of dynamics from Levy, from a handful of Vaughan-like dips and an enigmatically scatted solo with an unexpected joke snuck in toward the end. With its bright New Orleans-flavored horns, hints of late 90s downtown songwriter rock and suspenseful triplet groove, the uneasily hopeful Dear Friend is another smash: it wouldn’t be out of place in the Gretchen Parlato songbook.
The ballad Sleepwalk With Me, underscored by Anderson’s poignantly minimalist solo, paints a colorfully nocturnal portrait of separation anxiety – and it’s not all angst, either. If you listen closely the narrative includes a pillow fight. Levy does Dexter Gordon’s Soy Califa as a triumphant samba, contrasting with the withering breakup scenario Leaving Today, where the cad who’s dumping her can’t be coaxed out of his easy chair. The version of John McNeil’s Down Sunday is even darker, and the most evocative of Sarah Vaughan, Levy cursing the “worthless, rotten Sunday, glum day, hurts me like a love untrue..then Monday, I wake up the same way…” Riley’s shivery solo juxtaposes against Knuffke’s ebullient upward drive, mirroring how Levy weighs triumph against defeat.
The album winds up with the tropically-tinged title track, Levy’s images painting a picture of an imperiled long-distance relationships:
Cities between us
Will mock us and tease us
Airlines will taunt us and haunt us…
If there’s anybody alive to sing these songs fifty yeas from now, many of them will be part of the standard repertoire. In keeping with Levy’s ongoing city theme, maybe next time she can do an album about love in a time of repression, mass displacement and pathological greed and call it City Under Siege.