Dee Daniels should need no introduction. Unfortunately, she too often does. In a music climate clouded by jazz-singing sound-alikes, a vocalist brave enough to let her affinity for hard bop remain undiluted by easy-listening production values; a vocalist who wields her instrument brashly like a player, exploring extended techniques comparable to the most intrepid trumpeters’ and saxophonists’; such a vocalist is bound to appeal foremost to the hard-core jazz aficionado. But given the heights and depths of feeling that Ms. Daniels accesses through her phenomenal vocal range, and the compulsively limb-engaging swing that she and her musicians whip up, her appeal should be obvious to any pair of ears.
Like Jeri Brown and Ranee Lee, two other singers with unashamed virtuoso leanings, Dee Daniels is an American who relocated long-term to Canada. In her case, this move came on the heels of a five-year musical pilgrimage to Holland and Belgium, where she built upon her gospel, r&b and rock roots to hone a career in straightahead jazz. For over two decades afterwards, she based that career in Vancouver, BC, releasing seven albums and a DVD. Just three years ago, to be closer to the action, Daniels moved south of the border to the Big Apple.
There in 2013 she recorded State of the Art, the Criss Cross Jazz label’s first-ever vocalist-led date after some 360 releases. That number symbolizes the completion of a full circle, for Dee Daniels reportedly became aware of Criss Cross while living in Amsterdam in 1982, when the Dutch label’s catalogue consisted of a single album. The Criss Cross Jazz release schedule is modest, at this point encompassing about a dozen new albums yearly, but chances are that Daniels will reappear on the label before long: it has a proven track record of loyalty to its musicians, many of whom appear as both leaders and sidemen on numerous releases across the Criss Cross catalogue.
In common with labels like HighNote, Capri, Sharp Nine, Posi-Tone and Cellar Live, Criss Cross stands as a stronghold of straightahead jazz, a haven for players who prize the values of bebop and hard bop. For the first couple of years, label founder and producer Gerry Teekens employed the services of recording engineer Rudy Van Gelder in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. Since then the majority of albums have been engineered by another former optometrist of Dutch extraction, Max Bolleman, who would accompany Teekens yearly from Holland to record Criss Cross artists in NYC. Latterly, sound engineering duties have devolved on other shoulders—in this case, on Max Ross’s. Ross also mastered the recording, which was mixed by Michael Marciano.
Recording quality is impeccably clear and full, keeping Ms. Daniels’ voice front and centre but giving her instrumentalists enough presence to confirm that they worked with her dynamically as a band, not passively as backup. On the earlier sessions with which I’m most familiar, Love Story (1999) and Feels SO Good! (2002), the singer is cited as co-producer. The sound on the first disc, recorded in Vancouver, is gorgeous: warm and transparent, enshrining a sense of intimacy among the players. The next album, recorded in New York, sounds comparatively rough, with a strident edge and tinny piano. This new Teekens production does not sound so delicately suspended somewhere beyond time as Love Story, still my favourite Dee Daniels disc; State of the Art conveys a more clinical atmosphere in which detail is sharply preserved with a brightness suiting the down-to-business hurly burly of her new hometown.
The opening track asserts this sense of immediacy when Daniels explodes out of the starting gate: the pent-up energy that propels “Almost Like Being in Love” makes it sound almost like she and the band began the tune in medias res. This is one of two up-tempo standards briskly dispatched on State of the Art; the other ten tracks reside on the slow side. Daniels flaunts her chops early in the tune, scatting atop the buoyant accompaniment of pianist Cyrus Chestnut. The scatting gives way to an economical tenor solo by Eric Alexander, who cut his first album as a leader for Criss Cross in 1992 and has been contributing prolifically to the label as a sideman ever since. On the other fast number, “I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart,” Alexander’s sax trades quips with Alvester Garnett’s kit until the drummer breaks out in a solo display of varied rhythmic resource.
A major revelation on the new album is “Cherokee,” which Dee Daniels delivers more slowly than pretty much anyone. The tune has been recorded only occasionally by vocalists, including one of Dee’s major influences, Sarah Vaughan. Usually it serves as a showpiece for instrumentalists bent on exercising maximum technique at breakneck speed. Tribal tom-toms and dark piano notes open the piece with an air of exoticism befitting the fanciful lyrics. Like other female singers who’ve tackled the tune, Daniels addresses her words to a “sweet Indian warrior,” as opposed to the “sweet Indian maiden” originally specified. As always, on “Cherokee” her low notes are beautifully formed, ruminatively casting an autumnal spell with the help of Garnett’s brushwork and delicate cymbal washes, not to mention a piano solo where Chestnut calmly loiters along the keys.
The other notably languid display here is Daniels’ astonishing take on the warhorse “Willow Weep for Me.” Hers has already earned a place alongside my favourite renditions: Billy Bang (violin); Stanley Turrentine (tenor sax); and Tin Hat Trio (vocals by Willie Nelson). Abetted by Chestnut’s sparse accompaniment, Daniels’ soulfully haunted delivery brings the broken-hearted narrator to life, finding sympathetic desolation in the willow tree’s elaborate weeping. Her artful elongation of syllables and final imploring repetitions of “weep” infuse Ann Ronell’s audacious word-assemblage with keen feeling. In the sax solo, Alexander’s glistening tone supplies objective commentary, an entirely different sound from Houston Person’s on Love Story and
Feels SO Good!, where the elder tenorist’s warm soulfulness closely complements Daniels’ dusky timbre.
In “Lover Man,” performed just as slowly as “Willow Weep for Me” and at even greater length, Daniels again hauntingly animates a lovelorn soul. She takes a ruminative approach, phrasing deliberately and ominously to impart an unexpected complexity: this lonely woman wants love but equally dreads its implications. Hear how Daniels drops her voice to draw out the word “strange” at 2:58, underlining this ambivalence. A quietly hair-raising moment. And listen to the final iteration of “Hugging and a-kissing/Oh, [look] what I’ve been missing,” where she lingers thoughtfully over her words, adding “look” with an air of irony as though doubting the value of desire.
Further highlights are too many to mention at length. There’s the brace of Sinatra-associated tunes: “Summer Wind,” with a masterfully undemonstrative piano solo from Chestnut; and Cole Porter’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” sporting a dapper turn from Alexander. Trombonist Wycliffe Gordon, whose disc The Intimate Ellington (2013) boasted Daniels’ first Criss Cross appearance, lends a playful arrangement of another Porter number, “Night and Day.” Here, to stress the ineluctable recurrence of romantic longing, the singer matches wits with introductory drum embellishments that conjure beating tom-toms, ticking clocks and dripping raindrops. “Almost Like Being in Love” likewise wears a Gordon arrangement. The repertoire on Daniels’ disc was influenced too by Houston Person, who reportedly recommended a couple of numbers: “I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone” and a comparative obscurity, “Why Did I Choose You.” The latter affords bassist Paul Beaudry his one spotlit moment, when he solos forthrightly against a distant trickle of piano keys.
In fact, like her other two albums that I’ve mentioned, Dee’s State of the Art is all highlights—nothing added merely to inch the CD towards a one-hour running time. If this disc is a statement definitive of Daniels’ present intent, it seems she’s concerned these days with finding greater subtlety within vocal constraints. Sure, the expressive means remain markedly more varied than most vocalists’, but just compare them to the extreme thrills and spills she delivered on Feels SO Good!: where, for example, Daniels’ original tune “Love Ain’t Love Without You” offered the most passionately charged proof of stratospheric vocal reach that you’re likely to hear. State of the Art installs the master more introspectively in her workshop, still choosing from all the tools available, but only as appropriate to the task at hand. The tasks are assigned by the Great American Songbook: no originals this time, and no David/Bacharach songs (like “The Look of Love” on FSG!); just standards and near-standards whose lyrics Daniels inhabits so fully that you feel her coming to terms with whatever process they document. The songs emerge lived-in, lived-through, and with the Dee Daniels “wow” factor intact. What more can I say? Wow!