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Sherri Roberts
Brownstone 1998
BRCD 9811

Songs | Personnel | Liner Notes

For Sherri Roberts, Dreamsville is a moody place, sparse but full of atmosphere, where even the brighter corners have a shadow or two. In her second album, this pillowy-voiced jazz singer draws listeners into that quiet world. "I'm not a very external performer," she says, "and I try to keep things as simple as possible." To that end, she personalizes the music with tasteful, discreet variations, all marked by a refreshing ease.

Roberts has won praise for her "great musical intelligence in the choice of songs and interpretation" (Jazzwise magazine) and for her way of "respectfully stretching precious melodies without resorting to distracting acrobatics" (Derk Richardson, San Francisco Bay Guardian), and she finds musicians who share the same values. Dreamsville places her in a jazz-chamber setting of rhythm section, saxophone, violin, cello, and percussion: an ensemble led by bassist Harvie Swartz, who showed his rapport with jazz singers in a sixteen-year collaboration with one of the best, Sheila Jordan.

The urge to sing filtered down to Sherri through a musical family tree. Her grandfather was a cantor in Russia, her father a non-professional but gifted singer who loved swing and the classics. It was no wonder that Sherri, from infancy, found singing as natural a means of expression as speech. At kindergarten age she heard an album in her parents' collection at the family home in Atlanta: Perry Como's Hits from Broadway Shows. Fascinated by the craft of Berlin and Loesser and Rodgers, Sherri fell in love with musical comedy, and graduated college with a theater degree in 1979.

Her focus shifted that year when she moved to San Francisco and bonded with two jazz vocal enthusiasts: Adam Frey, a pianist and tunesmith she had known since high school; and Denny Santos, who owned a staggering collection of tapes and albums. Discovering Helen Merrill, Chet Baker, Billie Holiday, and Ella Fitzgerald, Sherri learned a more creative way of singing classic pop: to phrase rhythmically while staying connected to the words. "I discovered that swinging brought more life to a tune, and it could be done without sacrificing melody or lyric," she says. "I enjoy singing over jazz changes much more than ėshowķ changes, because jazz changes have their own story to tell, and they intensify the emotional power of a ballad. What's more, take any great song by a team like Rodgers and Hart, and you've got a miniature play, distilled to its essence."

Her conviction was sealed in a private tutorial with Jeri Southern, the somber, minimalistic pianist-singer who had given up performing twenty-five years earlier in favor of teaching. Southern's advice, like her music, made a deep impact on Sherri. The evidence is in her recording, featured here, of a song they worked on together: Rodgers and Hart's "It Never Entered My Mind," a prime example of how Hart couched heartbreak in self-mocking humor. Southern "took it apart phrase by phrase," says Sherri. "Her whole approach to teaching was about the lyric, how to shape each line so that the words came across as poignantly as possible." Sherri interprets them with a dry-eyed wisdom, reinforced by a chart for trio, strings, and tenor (written by pianist Mark Soskin) that combines jazz with a stately classical feeling. "With a Song in My Heart," another Rodgers and Hart ballad, is normally heard as a soaring love song, but Sherri presents it as an affectionate remembrance of her father, who died shortly before the session. Swartz's arrangement, in a double waltz time, gives her performance an added brightness.

Turning to film, she revives "How Little We Know," a pragmatic look at romance that Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer wrote for To Have and Have Not (1944). In a breezy trio arrangement, Danny Gottlieb's drumming sounds as graceful as a soft-shoe dance. "Darkness enters in Middle of the Night," the title song of a 1959 domestic melodrama that starred Fredric March and Kim Novak. George Bassman provided music for a lyric by Paddy Chayefsky, author of the play on which the film is based. Their song found its way onto one of Nina Simone's albums, and in turn to Sherri. "I became very drawn to it because of the sorrow in the lyric, the painfully accurate description of lost love," she says. With only the spare accompaniment of Soskin and Swartz, Sherri brings out all the song's bleakness.

The opposite mood prevails in "Dreamsville," where love becomes a "pink cloud" of rapture. Written by Jay Livingston, Ray Evans, and Henry Mancini, the song first appeared in the TV series Peter Gunn; Lola Albright sang it in her role as a nightclub chanteuse. "People Will Say We're in Love" is a souvenir of Sherri's childhood, when she watched Oklahoma on TV and memorized all the songs. Her playfully coy singing is countered by the hard-edged tenor sax of Chris Potter, whose talents are winning him international attention.

Throughout the album, Sherri pays homage to some of the great composer-musicians of jazz. "Zoot Walks In" began life as "The Red Door," a 1954 instrumental by Zoot Sims and Gerry Mulligan. Years later, Dave Frishberg added a lyric that celebrates the late, beloved tenor player. Sherri sounds appealingly wistful on "Social Call," a song first recorded in 1955 by its composer, saxophonist Gigi Gryce, and singer Ernestine Anderson. Jon Hendricks supplied the words. Once again Sherri's partner is Chris Potter, with an easygoing chorus on soprano sax. Denny Santos introduced Sherri to "Strange Meadowlark," a Dave Brubeck tune outfitted with words by singer Meredith d'Ambrosio and Sharyn Abramoff. The mood of longing is enhanced by Soskin and Erik Friedlander, an adventurous New York-based cellist and composer.

Bob Dorough first recorded his breathless plea for reciprocal love, "I've Got Just About Everything," on the 1966 album Just About Everything. "For anybody that likes words, as I do, it's got plenty of them," says Sherri. But she takes time to savor them all in this relaxed arrangement with a samba touch. She dips into a true Brazilian songbag with "Two Kites," written in 1979 by Antonio Carlos Jobim but never published. In an arrangement with all the color and sensuality of Carnaval, Soskin augments the rhythm section with Friedlander, violinist Gregor Hubner, and Memo Acevedo, a percussionist of exceptional taste and imagination. The album comes to a fittingly nocturnal close with "Dream Dancing," a 1941 Cole Porter ballad rediscovered several years ago by Zoot Sims, Ella Fitzgerald, and other jazz artists. Sherri takes it a step further by including the rare verse, followed by a pulsating, Latin-tinged chorus.

Singing in such finely detailed settings, Sherri truly flowers. "I'm in a position where I perform a lot for non-listening audiences," she explains, and yet the music always sees her through. For her, the satisfaction comes in "singing a song well. Working with musicians where things are really clicking. Then when someone goes out of their way to listen, and says afterwards, ėthat was beautiful,ķ it's incredibly rewarding." Heard with the attention it deserves, Dreamsville offers a wealth of rewards.

— James Gavin, New York City, 1998

James Gavin's work has appeared in The New York Times and the Village Voice. Alfred A. Knopf will publish his forthcoming biography of Chet Baker.

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