The jazz market has lately been
flooded with recordings by aspiring vocalists, in the wake of successes enjoyed by a
select few most notably Diana Krall and Cassandra Wilson -- who have managed to
catch the pop worlds attention.
Given the current glut, one might glance at the song titles on Barbara
Sfragas debut disc and dismiss this as just another "safe" collection of
tried-&-true standards. Oh, what a mistake! Sfraga, a 15-year veteran of the New York
nightclub scene, refreshes the familiar material with enticing new approaches, molds some
unlikely covers into vehicles for bold improvisation and throws in a few provocative
originals for good measure.
Oh, What a Thrill cops its name from a line in the 50s rock
& roll hit "Great Balls of Fire," here slowed to a sultry crawl.
Sfragas purr-to-a-scream delivery might well make Jerry Lee Lewis, the songs
most famous interpreter, blush. Guitarist Bruce Saunders adds to the seductive mood by
firing off strings of gritty blues licks, while bassist John Hebert raises the temperature
of this slow burner almost to the boiling point.
The songstress displays both her vocal gymnastics and clever wordplay
on Saunders furious bopper "Slug It Up." Her poignant kiss-off lyrics
match his lightning-fast string picking, note for note. The guitarist later engages in
superb cat-and-mouse soloing with pianist David Berkman (who performed admirably at a WWUH
fundraising concert last November).
Sfraga and her band of merry pranksters offer several inspired new
arrangements of standard material, ranging from a lovely bossa reading of
"Invitation" to their slightly funked-up version of "Angel Eyes,"
complete with bits and pieces of "Sunshine of Your Love"...who woulda thunk it?
Fred Hersch, widely acknowledged as one of the most lyrical baby-boomer
jazz pianists, joins Sfraga for two gently swinging duets, and dominates the albums
closing track, "Song for My Mother." The latter, an impassioned portrayal of
Sfragas spiritual journey, also carries a universal message for anyone who has
experienced the subtle strength of a mothers undying love. In a lighter vein,
Barbara enlists the masterful vocal talents (and lyrics) of Mark Murphy for a whimsical
call-and-response romp through "Ill Call You," a lovers lament to
The Naxos label has been releasing acclaimed classical recordings for
many years but has only recently delved into the jazz realm. Mike Nock, a New Zealand born
keyboardist who has been performing professionally for over four decades, is at the helm
of Naxos Jazz. For more information about Oh, What a Thrill and other Naxos
releases, visit the labels website: naxosusa.com.
Copyright©WWUH: March/April Program Guide, 2000