Every year, this blog receives scores of albums by jazz singers. Most of them are women, and most of those are in their fifties or older. These records, most of them available on cd, seem to be audio resumes, something a veteran of restaurant and bar gigs can use to get more of the same, or to sell there as souvenirs. Very few of them contain any originals. Fewer still hold up to repeated listening.
Once in awhile there’s a blast of fresh air from a younger singer like the Swingaroos’ Kimberly Hawkey, or polymath Champian Fulton, or the badass Brianna Thomas, who’s in a class by herself. So it’s refreshing to see Kansas City-based singer Joanna Berkebile come right out of the chute swinging with her debut album Love Me or Leave Me, streaming at Soundcloud. She’s firing on all cylinders. She has a badass sense of humor, she sings in character with a strong, mutable, vintage soul-infused soprano, she has great taste in songs and an equally inspired band behind her. Pianist Leslie Maclean gets credit for the inventive arrangements, with Tim Brewer on bass and Jerry Pollock on drums.
This is also a remarkably upbeat, energetic album. A couple of klezmer-inspired tunes are among the strongest. The first is the opening track, Blossom Dearie’s The Gentleman Is a Dope, done as straight-up swing with a devious bit of a tempo change and a purposeful bass solo, i.e. the good kind, plus a subtly glittering crescendo from Maclean before the last chorus. Berkebile starts out brassy but shifts toward poignancy as the song grows more complicated. This version should be required listening for any woman eating her heart out over some unattainable dude.
The other is Comes Love, which Berkebile and the band do as a spacious midtempo clave tune with a wry matter-of-factness that echoes the song’s roots. They reinvent Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby by ramping up the carnivalesque, Cab Calloway hi-de-ho factor, something she goes even deeper into in Temptation. The late Amy Winehouse couldn’t touch the noir smolder Berkebile channels here.
Likewise, Berkebile ramps up the revenge in Goody Goody, Maclean adding ragtime flair, bass and drums hinting at vindictive vaudeville. She pulls back, but just a little in the brisk, defiant title track, complete with soaring, triumphant scatting solo and some ridiculously funny moments from the rhythm section.
Although Berkebile’s take of Mean to Me has an undercurrent of exasperation, the band have just as much devious fun with it. Maclean’s glimmering, emphatic chords propel My Last Affair, Berkebile’s most dynamically bristling number here.
The album’s most expansive track is a stunningly moody, modally-tinged version of Peel Me a Grape, Berkebile relishing her insatiable narrator’s litany of demands. For those whose taste in vocal jazz runs to demure coquetry, this is not it. But for those who like their singers on the fearless and indominatible side, Berkebile is someone to keep your eye on.