"It began to feel daunting playing Mexican folk music on its own terms," he says. "That's something that takes a lifetime of study and practice." Given his own background with Midwestern folk and Slezak's home-grown training in Southern folk, church music, and classical violin, the David Wax Museum can be convincing in a gospel-music original like "Let Me Rest" or the centuries-old "banned" (it's sexually suggestive) son jarocho "Chuchumbe."
The thread through all the material on Everything Is Saved, Slezak tells me, is the instrumentation, which always includes Mexican folkloric elements, like one of Wax's Mexican folk guitars, or accordion, or that donkey jawbone (quijada), or a brass arrangement. The idiomatic instrumentation helps the expanded production of Everything Is Saved (by Sam Kassirer) maintain its rootsy feel. Their roots folk has put them on a par with bands like Providence's the Low Anthem, who have covered "Let Me Rest" and whose Mat "Twain" Davidson will open at Oberon. That show, Slezak tells me, will feature "a lot of theatrics," with the core duo expanded to a 12-piece band.
There aren't a lot of ways for a jazz-standards singer to stand out these days. After all, when jazz instrumentalists are covering Radiohead and Elliott Smith and people like Esperanza Spalding and Gretchen Parlato are refashioning jazz singing for a post-Joni Mitchell, post-Stevie Wonder world, what of the baby boomers who are still slugging it out with classics from the first half of the past century: Rodgers, Hart, Kern, Hammerstein, Mercer, Porter, the Gershwins? One answer comes from Tierney Sutton, whose band play a Celebrity Series Concert at Sanders Theatre next Friday.
Sutton's first album, released in 1998, when she was a Thelonious Monk competition finalist, showed someone with blazing technique — she could burn through the lyrics and scat at superfast tempos on Hammerstein & Kern's "The Song Is You," and she sang a ballad like Rodgers & Hart's "It Never Entered My Mind" with emotional authority. And she was an imaginative improviser - melodically, harmonically, rhythmically. But over seven subsequent albums, Sutton has set herself apart with something more. For one, she has superb taste in material. She'll fashion a disc around a particular theme or artist - Frank Sinatra, Bill Evans, standards more commonly associated with instrumentalists (Unsung Heroes). For another, she and her band create distinctive arrangements that make even the hoariest standards sound fresh and alive.
Unlike singers with backing-band set-ups, Sutton and her outfit work as equal partners, creating the arrangements together — and occasionally scrapping them. "We all have veto power in the band," she says over the phone from LA. "Anyone can say, 'You know what, I don't buy it.' If anyone says that, it doesn't get played."
On their most recent album, 2009's Desire (Telarc), there's one deft touch after another. "Fever" doesn't slide into the familiar swing vamp — instead, it has Sutton delivering the lyrics over out-of-tempo bass patterns. The quintessential vamp number "Whatever Lola Wants" is sung not as an up-tempo showstopper but long and slow over tense, stuttering bass and brushed drum patterns. This counter-intuitive approach is typical. On 2007's The Other Side, almost every number works against the grain of the given thematic mood - happiness. From "Get Happy" to "Make Someone Happy" and "Smile," subtle shifts in tempo, harmony, phrasing, and key express doubt, resignation, or downright opposition. Think of the bitter irony of Billie Holiday's "Our Love Is Here To Stay," and you get the idea.