New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Fearless Singer Reinvents Jazz Luminary’s Compositions in the Here and Now

Allegra Levy’s lyrics have a somewhat cynical, noir-ish take on the world – right up my alley,” says trumpeter John McNeil. That’s an understatement. The New York singer and jazz songwriter is a McNeil protegee, and has most recently written lyrics to a bunch of his compositions dating from the early 80s into the zeros. Then she had the chutzpah to release them as a new album, Lose My Number, with an otherwise all-female band, streaming at Soundcloud.

The intrigue with Levy is that she’s always been a bit of a cipher, someone with a fondness for working allusion and understatement to her advantage. Not nearly so much here. Suddenly Andante Cantabile Levy is, well, the name on the album cover, fearless yet often more misty.

“Another night that I could have been somebody’s someone…fickle fortune would finally be mine,” she intones just short of breathlessly in the album’s opening number, Samba de Beah. But, “Now misfortune is aways by my side.” There’s a gorgeously scrambling Carmen Staaf piano solo over a similarly dramatic backdrop from bassist Carmen Rothwell and drummer Colleen Clark.

Livin Small turns into an understatedly corrosive reflection on settling for less than we deserve in gentrification-era New York, a determined clave tune with an incisive solo that Staaf refuses to let go of as Rothwell dances over steady washes of cymbals. Remember, New York had a housing crisis long before the lockdown.

The third track, Tiffany is the key to the album. McNeil came up with the song after a gig, walking past Tiffany’s to the train, frustrated that he couldn’t afford the kind of bling he wanted for his fiancee. In this pulsing, rippling nocturne, Levy captures the quiet triumph of walking down Fifh Avenue in the wee hours and realizing that the two didn’t need bling because they had each other.

The composer trades irresisibly amusing, terse phrases with the bandleader in Strictly Ballroom, reinvented as matter-of-fact, metoo-era swing. The even harder-swinging C.J. has irresistible, LOL drum breaks and obvious political subtext. The question is which real-life figure Levy is referring to:

And you’re thinking that you could be what we need
The savior, incomprehensible
And you don’t realize that we look at you
And see zero more than hero

“And in an ocean of despair, a rising tide will leave you stranded,” Levy warns in her interpretation of Dover Beach, although she doesn’t rule out the possibility of a lifeguard. Clark’s cymbal work, always a treat through the album, really makes a mark here. The cynicism hits redline in the oldtimey Ukulele Tune, Staaf’s judicious Rhodes voicings matched by Levy’s muted strumming and venomous lyrics

Opening with a wryly lyrical McNeil solo, the version of Zephyr here is a spare, gorgeously autumnal reflection, The Peacocks minus the birds, Rothwell adding balletesque grace. The band close with the title track, a redemptively scurrying, increasingly hilarious swing tune reflecting Levy and McNeil’s mutual inability to suffer fools gladly. He obviously fanned a fire under her that had been smoldering for a long time. Stealth contender for best vocal jazz album of 2020. Looks like the polls – the jazz kind as well as the political kind – are going to be a tough call this year.

Kelley Swindall Takes Her Fierce, Fearless Americana to the Next Level

Kelley Swindall is a badass outlaw country songwriter with a 21st century edge. She learned how to work a crowd singing over drunks at one of New York’s most notorious dive bars, the late, lamented Holiday Lounge and then up and down the Americana highway, from New York to New Orleans and pretty much all points in between. She’s got a new album, You Can Call Me Darlin’ If You Want, streaming at Soundcloud.

Pretty much every song on the record has been thoroughly road-tested, and a lot of them are a lot different than you may have heard her play onstage. For example, the opening number, I Ain’t For You You Ain’t For Me, used to be more of a hick-hop number. Here, it’s an unrepentant cheater’s anthem. The girl in this song strayed because she was trapped by a boyfriend who turned out to be an abusive POS, and she finally got wise. Swindall sings it with more than a little snarl over a searing minor-key drive spiced with Michael Hesslein’s piano and a tantalizingly evil Teddy Kumpel guitar solo midway through.

“Don’t put me on a pedestal ’cause I’ll jump off it,” she warns in the album’s track, a swaying, vintage 70s-style country-soul ballad with swirly organ. “I just smiled, and said, ‘That’s what drugs will do,’” Swindall tells the guy who wants to hang out, “talking shattered hopes and trashcan dreams, and all the lies in between” in Dear Savannah, a bittersweet over-the-shoulder look at a whirlwind romance.

California is a big crowd-pleaser, a wryly choogling talking blues about a transcontinental weed deal with a surprise ending. Meet Me Halfway is sort of a mashup of lazy Lowell George C&W and hick-hop: if anybody still thinks long-distance relationships have a prayer, Swindall will shatter that illusion.

Swindall follows the careening blues Come On Back My Way with the starry early 60s Nashville nocturne Refuse to Be Blue. My Minglewood Blues picks up where the iconic folk song left off: where the Grateful Dead took it into psychedelia, Swindall finds a lickety-split, feminist party anthem.

She lets her guard down in You Never Really Loved Me Anyway – but the punchline packs a wallop, over a Dylanesque Blood on the Tracks backdrop. She takes a welcome detour toward folk noir in Heartsick, then shifts toward classic honkytonk with He Ain’t You over Hesslein’s ragtimey piano and Don Dilego’s soaring, sinuous bassline.

She closes the record with Spring Street Dive: “You know sometimes the fear of being tied down sometimes holds you back from taking flight, it’s true!” she announces. The vinyl version also has a secret bonus cover track. Dilego’s production also deserves a shout: this has the feel of a big-room analog record, not the kind of sterile digital ambience that plagues so many rock and Americana records these days.