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
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.
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
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."
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.