Allegra Levy is the rare more-or-less straight-ahead jazz singer who writes her own material. It’s very good. Her latest album Looking at the Moon – streaming at youtube – is a departure for her, both musically and contentwise. It’s all covers, and the arrangements are especially intimate. What’s consistent with her previous albums is that this is a song cycle. It’s a bunch of tunes about the moon, and Levy’s vocals match the eclecticism of the selections. She’s playing Birdland tomorrow night, May 15 at 7 PM; you can get in for twenty bucks, a real steal at that joint.
The biggest shocker on the album turns out to be the best track: Nick Drake’s iconic Pink Moon reinvented as a duet with Tim Norton’s balletesque bass. The lingering dread in Levy’s delivery is only slightly more direct than the original. And Neil Young’s Harvest Moon turns out to be an apt vehicle for Levy’s minutely nuanced, somewhat misty vocals: this is her most Karrin Allyson-esque record. The comet trail from guitarist Alex Goodman as Levy eases into the third verse is sublime. Beyond those two numbers, most of the songs are familiar standards, although Levy’s approach is hardly conventional.
Her longtime collaborator, the brilliant pianist Carmen Staaf edges toward phantasmagoria with her steady, roller rink-tinged piano throughout their take of Moon River, the nocturnal suspense enhanced by the absence of drums: that’s just Norton in back. I’ve Got the Sun in the Morning (And the Moon at Night) is a tentatively content quartet piece, Goodman adding a purist solo after a jaunty, bluesy one from Staaf.
Blue Moon gets a playful, rather pointillistic treatment that brings to mind Sofia Rei, especially as the band edge their way toward bossa nova. The mutedly dancing Vegas noir of Moon Ray looks back to the Nancy King version, while Moonlight in Vermont sounds nothing like Margaret Whiting: that one’s a hushed, spare duet with Goodman.
A low-key Moonglow is the least individualistic of the tracks here, although Norton’s minimalistic solo is tasty. By contrast, Levy really nails the coy humor in Polka Dots and Moonbeams: it’s a treat to hear Staaf’s starry righthand throughout the album, particularly on this track. No Moon at All has simmer, and distant unease, and sotto-voce joy: it brings to mind Champian Fulton in a rare hushed moment.
It’s Only a Paper Moon is the album’s funniest track: it’s an unusually fast song for the somewhat ironically named bandleader. And I’ll Be Seeing You is on the record since the last line begins with “I’ll be looking at the moon” – and because Steeplechase Records honcho Nils Winther wanted it. The only miss here is an attempt to salvage a morbidly cloying AM radio hit by a 70s folksinger who went by Yusuf Islam for a time, and supported the fatwa against Salman Rushdie. A fascist nutjob by any other name is still a fascist nutjob.