TERI ROIGER - Still Life (MAKI)
by J Hunter
In life, there are certain immutable truths. For example, you can weld a Winged Victory hood ornament onto the front of a Hyundai and it still won't be a Rolls Royce. By the same token, you can play the chart for In The Wee Small Hours just the way Quincy Jones wrote it, but it doesn't make you Sinatra.
Teri Roiger, on the other hand, doesn't need to put on anything others have created, or recreate what has been deemed great or prestigious, because she is the genuine article - an authentic jazz singer who can not only interpret a song (as well as the mood of the protagonist inside it), but can become an instrument herself when the situation calls for it, holding her own with established players when the scat gets out of the bag on her latest release, Still Life.
Ten years ago, this disc would have been on Blue Note or Verve; the quality of both the music and the musicians is on that level. It's a dead heat what's better: Roiger's interpretive talents or her lyric-writing skills (both for adaptations and for her own originals). But even though a single-length version of Roiger's exquisite take on Dewey Redman's Joie de Vivre is included as a bonus track, the chances of this exploration becoming a million-selling hit range between Slim and None. It is just more proof that - like husband John Menegon's recent effort Soul Advice (Maki) - the good stuff is happening far away from the major labels.
Roiger's choice of material is fearless. Wannabes and rock stars don't go near the intricacies of Monk's Straight No Chaser, but Roiger takes off on it like a kid on a new bike. Joie de Vivre is one of two Redman tunes on Still Life; the other is the bouncing Dewey's Tune, and Roiger penned smart lyrics for both. She dives deep into her lower register on Joie de Vivre to draw the listener into her description of the lows (and highs) of life, and how one must experience it all. Roiger also references various Ellington tunes as a bridge to her take on Maybe, Billy Strayhorn's faux-casual tale of love tossed off.
Still Life would be notable for the supporting cast alone: Drummer Matt Wilson is a leader himself (Matt Wilson's Arts & Crafts, voted one of the Rising Star Groups in the recent Downbeat Critics Poll), and was part of one of my favorite 2005 discs, the Bill Mays Trio's Live At Jazz Standard (Palmetto); Play, pianist Frank Kimbrough's latest release on the same label, is one of a slew of outstanding trio dates currently flying around. These two can bubble like champagne one minute and pop you like a welterweight the next, but their work here never takes the spotlight from Roiger too long.
Then there's bass player Menegon, who lays quality foundations for David Fathead Newman when he's not polishing his own music. Menegon not only brings his terrific playing and writing skills to the table, but also (I think) his singing skills; the male portion of Roiger's duet on Menegon's Twilight Delight goes uncredited. This may be out of necessity or, more likely, embarrassment: While the lyric of mutual love is genuine, the male vocal
well, he ain't Kurt Elling. Kurt Jurgens, maybe
But seriously, folks, this is an infinitely talented trio occasionally augmented by Gil Goldstein's accordion. (No, wait! Stop running for the exits!) It's true that, as a mutual friend once told me, a gentleman is a man who can play the accordion, but doesn't. In this case, though, the result is similar in tone to Toots Thielemans' chromatic harmonica. It gives Herbie Nichols' So It Always Happens an almost European feel, and the sawing-violin effect Goldstein brings to the title track sharpens the edge of this haunting reminder of how past lives & loves crawl inside our heads in the wee small hours.
Still Life won't redefine what a jazz singer is. That's already happened, much to the detriment of the genre. This disc brings us back to basics. Instead of keeping the audience behind a wall of grandiose arrangements and focus-group-approved marketing, Roiger brings you up close and extremely personal - a friend telling you her story while the whiskey sweetens the coffee, and another pot percolates on the counter.
J HUNTER is a former announcer/producer for radio stations in the Capital Region and the Bay Area, including KSJS/San Jose (where he was Assistant Music Director/Jazz programming), Q104 WQBK/Albany, and WSSV/Saratoga. He has also written music and theatre reviews for the Glens Falls Chronicle. He currently resides in Clifton Park.