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Coolly Enigmatic, Purist Jazz Chanteuse Dorian Devins Brings Her Reinventions to Her Usual West Village Haunt

Singer Dorian Devins works the cool side of jazz. Subtlety is her thing: if you detest over-the-top things in general, you will love her style. Her uncluttered, often disarmingly direct mezzo-soprano delivery brings to mind misty torch singers like June Christy and Julie London (Devins once conceived of a multi-artist tribute night that would be called I Am Not Julie London). Which speaks to Devins’ deadpan, often devastating sense of humor, something that sometimes makes it into her performances depending on how sedate the venue is. Some of her latest full-length album, sardonically titled Imaginary Release  is streaming at her music page. She’s at Cornelia Street Cafe on August 31 at 6 PM leading a quintet; cover is $10 plus a $10 minimum.

The album is a mix of standards, the classic instrumental joints that Devins loves to pen her own lyrics to, and a handful of choice originals. She and her group open with Benny Goodman’s Lullaby in Rhythm, Devins’ artful climb from guarded hope to quiet triumph contrasting with Tom Christensen’s jaunty tenor sax and Paul Gill’s dancing bowed bass over the low-key swing of pianist Lou Rainone and drummer Taro Okamoto. Her first lyrical reinvention here is Wayne Shorter’s Conundrum, an aptly enigmatic ballad with Rainone’s glittering piano and Christensen’s terse flute over Okamoto’s bossa-tinged groove.

The lustre of Richie Vitale’s flugelhorn in tandem with the flute introduce a balmy, matter-of-factly optimistic take of Leonard Bernstein’s Some Other Time, Gill’s fluttering bass solo handing off to Rainone’s gleaming neoromanticisms. Then they pick up the pace, remaking Duke Ellington’s I’m Gonna Go Fishin’ as a brisk, understatedly biting jazz watlz with soaring solos from Vitale on trumpet and Christensen on tenor to match Devins’ leaps and bounds.

The album’s best and most deviously entertaining track is Satie-ated – damn, there goes another good title! It’s a distantly bolero-esque remake of Erik Satie’s Gymnopede No. 1. “Here and there the distant glare that burns me/I hope there’ll be a time my mind returns me,” Devins broods, echoed by Christensen’s moody oboe. Resolution, a Devins/Rainone co-write, opens with a similarly modal gravitas and rises to a shuffling entreaty to come down from the clouds and have some fun, Christensen’s tenor spirals handing off to Rainone’s terse flourishes.

Devin’s coy vocals contrast with the nocturnal groove of Jobim’s So Tinha de Ser Com Voce: it’s closer to straight-up clave jazz than dreamy bossa, Rainone adding a welcome bluesy tint. Devins’ final original is the pensive jazz waltz Lament for the Moon, Christensen’s mournful oboe and Rainone’s expressive piano echoing the metaphorically-charged tale of a satellite who’s completely lost in daylight hours.

They do Hidden Treasure, by jazz-inflected 70s British rock band Traffic, as an uneasy clave tune and stay in tropicalia mood for a bossa take of 60s folksinger Tim Harden’s Misty Roses, Tom Hubbard’s pinpoint bass contrasting with swooping flute. The album winds up with a genially swinging, bittersweet take of Billie Holiday’s The Moon Looks Down and Laughs. This is Devins’ most eclectic and strongest release to date – and she’s got another ep, City Stories, just out and up on Spotify, too.

Dorian Devins Brings Her Inventive, Low-Key Jazz Nocturnes to the West Village

Singer Dorian Devins occupies a pretty unique place in jazz. She doesn’t just sing standards and the occasional obscurity: she reinvents instrumental numbers from across the years by penning her own pensive, tersely crafted, often subtly amusing lyrics. She sings in a cool, unadorned mezzo-soprano that harks back to golden age songbirds from June Christy to Peggy Lee, and like those singers, works the subtlest corners of her repertoire. For the past few years, she’s led a succession of trios and quartets and the occasional larger ensemble, gigging constantly from the West Village all the way out to deep Queens. Her latest album is titled The Procrastinator, parts of which are up at her webpage and at her youtube channel. Her next gig is out in front of a trio with her longtime pianist Lou Rainone and bassist Paul Gill at the Bar Next Door on Dec 5, with sets at 8:30 and 10:30 PM. Cover is $12.

The album’s opening number, Let’s Get Lost benefits from Devins’ low-key, enigmatic delivery – Karrin Allyson might have remade it this way. It’s about getting really lost, not just half-lost. Devins’ interpretation is a perfect match for the lyrics: “Let’s defrost, in this romantic mist.” Richie Vitale takes an animated, brightly toned trumpet solo followed by a bustling piano solo from Rainone.

A plush, balmy take of Wayne Shorter’s Deluge – retitled as Momentum – is next. Peter Brainin’s wary soprano sax adds welcome acidity, Rainone’s gracefully bluesy rainy-day lines matching the gritty mood. Kenny Dorham’s La Mesha gets an opiated, wary vocal echoed by a long, resonant, judicious Vitale solo, Rainone and the rest of the rhythm section – bassist Karl Kaminski and drummer Steve Johns – taking it into more jaunty territory.

I Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out to Dry, done here with equal parts steadiness and Rainone’s wee-hours glimmer, is a great choice of cover: Devins loves the surreal, and her deadpan approach to this one fits it to a T. Bob Dorough’s Better Than Anything, a jazz waltz, gets an unexpectedly emphatic treatment, and the ordinarily low-key Devins pulls it off, Brainin’s flute hovering in a Frank Wess vein, Rainone reaching an unexpected crescendo with his volleys of triplets.

The album’s title track, a Lee Morgan tune, gets reinvented with a neat intro where Kaminski shadows Devins’ wry 99-percenter lament, which she picks up with deft flights of chromatics. She invents Kurt Weill’s Speak Low as a nocturnal samba; Vitale’s sunny flugelhorn adds vivid contrast with Rainone’s darkly majestic, chromatically-charged attack. Likewise, Devins does Night Bird as tiptoeing, late-night swing, much more darkly than the famous Anita O’Day version, Vitale adding distant, steady unease. Devins’ devious little curlicue on the final “I still fly by night” is priceless.

Devins takes another Lee Morgan tune, Lament for Stacy, back in a grim St. James Infirmary direction, with a brooding bass solo. The final Lee Morgan number, Soft Touch. gets a surprising amount of oomph from Devins…and then she switches it up from a jazz waltz to flute-infused, latin-tinged swing.

Dreamer, better known as the Jobim tune Vivo Sonhando, has a hazy wistfulness and distant echoes of LA lowrider soul. The album closes with Time Was, best known as a Coltrane tune; Devins’ take gets a fondly nostalgic treatment, her calm delivery in contrast to the rhythm section, who are pretty much jumping out of their shoes.

Since this album came out in 2012, Devins reputedly has another on the way soon – maybe it’s time this blog was rebranded as The Procrastinator. Fun fact: Devins is not only a musician but also co-founder of New York’s Secret Science Club, a popular series that began as a WNYC program and predated the TED Talks by several years, covering all sorts of developments in technology, medicine and many other fields that will impact our lives in the near future.