Quintessential" is essential listening
One of the pleasures of jazz is the decentralized nature of the art form. And, for us fans, that means a very fertile field ever ready for harvesting. My traveling friends know what I mean. Choose a city and you can find a club full of performers congenial with your tastes. And even if you find yourself stranded in the backwaters of civilization, a good FM radio usually will yield some fine music late at night and on the low end of the dial. If you're lucky, you'll be within listening distance of some hip DJ or station whose mission is to spread the jazz word.

But those of us fortunate enough to have a personal network have earlier entree. I'm one of the lucky ones, courtesy of SkyJazz.

About a year and a half ago, I had some enthusiastic things to say in this space about a "Discovery" show centered upon the talent of the San Franciso area that had been broadcast by SkyJazz, and it wasn't long before I heard from one of the performers, Cathi Walkup, a most gifted and enthusiastic woman. We struck up an e-mail friendship, and she has sent me occasional updates on how the career is going. Her notes always are infected with her enthusiasm for her music.

So it was with a great deal of interest that I opened a package from Cathi a few months ago. The package contained a CD titled "Quintessential" [Flying Weasel, 2001], and it featured my e-mail friend and four of her West Coast pals, each of whom contributed three selections to this most toothsome disc. Peppered with evergreens and originals, "Quintessential" rewards repeated listenings and provides a meaty bite of the variety and talent now abroad in jazz land.

Shanna Carlson leads off with the full voicings of her mature, authoritative contralto on the Latin-tinged "You Can Fly," with some mighty lovely guitar by the tune's co-composer, Hugo Wainzinger. A bit further down the playing list, Carlson thrills again with a change of gears, thrillingly embodied by "You're My Thrill," a tune which exudes quietude and introspection. It is a performance both plaintive and sublime. "Funhouse Mirrors," her final performance in this outing, is a melancholy ballad that brings to mind Sondheim's "Send In The Clowns," and has enough emotional heft to bring a tear. It is Carlson's best contribution of this three-pack and, in itself, worth the price of admission.

I'm not sure what to do about Jenna Mammina, except to find more of her music. She cuts the bull's eye twice with her offerings, and I look forward to more of her work. First up is Stanley Turrentine's "Sugar," which the singer assays with a playful, little-girl voice that comes off as downright erotic. And she had the good musical sense to take one of my favorite tunes, "Softly, As In A Morning Sunrise," and bend it to her own considerable musical will, following a minimalist intro with a unique phrasing and swing that show off, not only the versatility of the tune, but also the singer's. The least of these three gems is "I'm Old-Fashioned," and it's kittenish and as smooth as a strawberry swirl.

Sharman Duran's "Alone Together" wins a star for her firm musical wisdom in making use of a sparse arrangement (her own) that does not crowd the singer. This is the essence of musical architecture and, after all, who knows the singer's voice better than the singer herself? I give this track a swollen thumbs-up and a tip of the hat to some very fine soprano saxophone work by Melicio Magdaluyo. Duran also gifts us with her original, "Angelito," a Latin-driven commemoration of her son's birth, and "Lagrimas," another original, a sad ballad of lost love that will feed the melancholy proclivities of even the most jaded listener.

Jennifer Lee. Peggy Lee, anyone? What class is to be found here, especially in her best offering for this disc, "Don't Blame Me." This tune seemed to be trying to get me together with others who live on the blue side of emotion. "Let's have a good cry together, we mere mortals, with the more experienced, but bittersweet, singer," it seemed to be saying. A top-notch selection, this. Add to that the nice melodic improvisation on "I'll Remember April" and the swinging nightclub hipness of old to be found on "I Love Being Here With You," and you'll have a treasure worthy of preservation.

I've saved my friend Cathi for last, not only because she shepherded this worthy project, but also because she scores three of three. A lyric writer of considerable talent, she revels in her gifts with good and grateful humor, and that's a good quality for any artist. In "Joys (Joy)" she adds a verse to Todd Buffa and Gary Niewood's engaging tune and performs with her trademark creamy alto that perfectly suits this composition. A bit bolder are her lyrics to Django Reinhardt's immortal "Clouds (Nuages)," and she takes us on a dreamy tour of the heavens guaranteed to satisfy the metaphysical traveler. Finally, "Close Your Eyes" gives the listener a taste of her facility with scat-singing and is the perfect vehicle to close this collection.

Those of my friends who fret for the health of jazz need only take a listen to this collection. It is a refreshing reminder that, all over the world, there are pockets of enthusiasts and, more important, talent, looking after the jazz legacy and, in many cases, pushing ahead by looking behind.

Each of these women (it's obvious in their selections and performances) has a firm hook in the vast legacy of vocal jazz. Each has done honor to the tradition. Each deserves your ear.

SKYJAZZ NOTE:  'Quintessential' is available at www.5voices.com