It's okay if you fall in love with Sherri Roberts. I've done it dozens of times.
When you listen to Sherri's thoughtful way with a vocal line, or her vibrant sense of swing, or her effortless embodiment of a song's emotion . . . well, a certain starry-eyed enchantment is inevitable. And why not? It's a response to Sherri's own affection for her songs. (In conversation, she makes frequent references to "falling in love" with a song or a lyric — often both.) She takes her innate feeling for melody and rhythm and mates it with an attraction for less-known and wrongly-neglected songs. When you hear the tuneful, thoughtful union that results, the word "repertoire" seems too impersonal.
The Sky Could Send You brings Sherri back together with producer/bassist/arranger Harvie S, who guided Sherri's previous releases. This time Harvie, a master musician and international musical savant, suggested that they hit the road, stylistically at least.
The Latin-tinged cadences of You're Looking At Me, framed by John Hart's lithe guitar work, showcase Sherri's well-modulated vibrato — one that charms and inspires respect in equal measure. Sherri always enjoyed Nat King Cole's version of the song, and says she "had been performing it as a walking ballad, as Nat had. When I brought it to Harvie, he put his own slant on it and he suggested doing it as a 3/4 bossa nova." In another stylish departure, Sherri and company add their own coda: a Brazilian groove that sweeps up the album’s soloists — John Hart, Phil Woods, Lew Soloff, Tim Collins and David Udolf — into an informal jam.
Long associated with Harry Belafonte, Jamaica Farewell becomes a dreamy confection in Sherri's hands, adorned by Tim Collins' vibes and a silky background chorus. "This is a song I used to sing in summer camp. Harvie interpolated an Afro-Cuban feel, so this is actually going to Jamaica via Cuba — which is probably out of the way," explains Sherri with a laugh.
Before, a Harvie S composition that met a Sherri Roberts lyric, has more than one story behind its yearning, questioning melody. Harvie wrote it on Sept. 10, 2001, and later could think of no more appropriate title than "Before." Sherri, who had lost her father a few years prior, also suffered the death of her mother during those last months before a nation lost its innocence. "I had these dual associations from that time," she explains. "I had the loss of my mother and the changing of the universe around me through both her loss, and the way we, as a country, felt the protection of our daily lives being taken away from us. So the two were very intertwined in my mind."
A buoyant Brazilian feel tempers the lyrical saudade of Let Me, which features the artfully unspooling alto lines of Phil Woods. When Sherri's vocal returns after his break, he continues to sketch his improvisations against the song's rising-and-falling changes, in a glorious intermingling of their voices.
A little-known collaboration of pianist Roger Kellaway and lyricist Gene Lees for a little-seen animated feature film, the serene Tell Me My Name conveys a sense of innocence and wide-eyed self-discovery that's aptly reflected by Sherri's warm, poised delivery. Drummer Vince Cherico’s mastery of color and rhythm comes neatly into play, as he brings his simmering brushwork to a boiling point of percussive flurries.
Outlined by its gracefully-arced, sky-gazing melody line, Sherri's conception of Jimmy Webb’s song The Moon's A Harsh Mistress bears a subtle Latin influence not heard on the Judy Collins version that Sherri loved growing up. "I used to be a folkie girl," she recalls. "I loved Judy Collins' beautiful, pure voice. It was one of these songs that I'd never performed before I did this recording — but I used to sing it to myself all the time."
Sherri's phrasing grows elastic on Return To Paradise, which was composed for the 1953 motion picture of that name, based on a tropically-themed James Michener novel. Her sustained vocal lines stretch over an exotically-flavored tempo in a performance embellished by Tim Collins' vertiginous vibes solo. "There's a lot of strength to the rhythmic motif in it — it's pulsating and it's driving the song," says Sherri. "This is also a song that changes time signatures, so it was a bit of a challenge to internalize, and then once I did, it felt very natural.”
Featuring a deliciously discursive Phil Woods solo, the bittersweet, soft-focus Rodgers & Hart theme You're Nearer receives the kind of affection that Sherri feels for that particular songwriting team. "These are the Sherri songs," she says amusedly. "I do a lot of their material. I certainly prefer Richard Rodgers' compositions when he was collaborating with Lorenz Hart more than Oscar Hammerstein. Not that I don't like the other material as well, but there's something about that period of his work that's particularly appealing to me."
Part two of Sherri's Rodgers & Hart double-header arrives in the form of a vocal-bass duet on Do It The Hard Way. Her limber vocals effortlessly trace its subtly coquettish melody on this casual musical get-together, but with a new vocalese passage Sherri adapted from a Chet Baker recording. "This is not a horn solo of his, he scatted that originally," Sherri explains. "I really had wanted to do this song. I had fun writing the vocalese lyrics and wanted also to pay tribute to Chet Baker, who is one of my favorite artists."
The Henry Mancini/Norman Gimbel theme Slow Hot Wind is mounted in a glowing, dreamlike atmosphere, its hushed, sighing pace studded with frissons of percussion and vibes. Yet Sherri's silvery, beacon-like voice still cuts through the song's harmonic haze. "I fell in love with this song off a Johnny Hartman recording," says Sherri. "He just had such a wonderful, rich voice, a mellifluous voice."
The gleaming proclamations of Lew Soloff introduce Far From New York, a swinging, swaying waltztime number composed by versatile Bay Area musician Larry Baskett. Sherri intones its gently undulating vocal line with barely-contained wonderment and wordlessly reprises its soft-contoured bridge after David Udolf, Tim Collins and Lew Soloff take their solos.
Sherri sings in Portuguese for the first time on the lyrical, rubato Jobim/de Moraes composition Por Toda Minha Vida. To the suggestion that the song is less a jazz theme than a fragile Brazilian aria, Sherri replies, "I call it a Jobim art-song. And I'm a bit of a sucker for artists that are popular composers, when they do reach down inside themselves and compose something that has elements of an art-song. And, coincidentally, Vida was my mother's name.”
After this emotional conclusion to Sherri's musical travelogue, it's clear that she's sent her individualistic songcraft farther than she's ever sent it before. The Sky Could Send You comprises a dozen new songs. And another dozen reasons to fall in love with Sherri Roberts.
— Drew Wheeler is a music journalist who lives in Brooklyn, New York