To smolder is to find oneself in an unpredictable state. The heat is there, steady yet subtle, but its trajectory is unknown. Will fire regenerate and burst into a conflagration or diminish and die? The emotional tinder is ever-present, its ultimate destination never certain. This is the landscape that Kristen Lee Sergeant traverses, now throwing flames, now tamping embers, in this boldly imagined and impeccably executed program.
Sergeant, for those unfamiliar with her scintillating 2016 debut disc Inside Out, is a Massachusetts native with a background in theater and classical voice who discovered greater challenges and greater expressive freedom in the more improvisational world of jazz. Her blend of musicianship, taste and emotional strength marked her immediately as someone special. This new collection, playing with varying degrees of directness on the album title, announces growth in every conceivable direction.
She begins with a strategy that was well displayed on her first disc, the reimagining of post-Beatles pop. Here the song is “True,” a 1983 hit by the British band Spandau Ballet. “Some songs that I once took for granted as background music have proven ripe for arranging,” Sergeant explains, “and in this case paying greater attention to the lyrics made me realize that the song was about honoring your own truth.” Her arrangement is full of telling detail, from the introduction by Ted Nash’s flute and Jeb Patton’s piano and the seamless tempo shift that drummer Jay Sawyer inaugurates to the way the singer duets with the now plucked, now bowed cello of Jody Redhage-Ferber. “Most of the songs are about one person and another,” Sergeant notes, “and Jody plays that role of the other on several tracks.”
“Balm/Burn” introduces us to Sergeant the composer, and provided the key to the overall album concept. It is a mesmerizing study in ambivalence in extremis, delivered with such conviction that it seems autobiographical – but no. “It started with a line that was very personal,” she explains, “but then another story entirely emerged. Part of it comes from deep within, but part is mysterious, like improvisation.” The funky unison bridge and the manner in which the reprise works into tempo after the piano and flute solos are two more signs of her command as both conceptualist and performer.
Sergeant’s second original, “Afterglow,” is another example of “a character emerging and running away with the lyric.” A more reflective torch song, it mines the morning-after mood with a rubato opening chorus. Ted Nash takes his sole turn on alto sax here and displays the empathy in support of a vocalist that calls to mind the likes of Cannonball Adderley and Phil Woods.
The mood brightens with “I’m Beginning to See the Light,” taken at a swinging medium tempo by Sergeant and the rhythm section. Two sections of the arrangement find her singing with only Cameron Brown in support, a situation Brown knows well through his work with Sheila Jordan. Sergeant’s pitch and time meet the challenge of this exposed setting. “Singing with just bass is like mountain
climbing,” she says, “and I feel safe with Cameron.”
“Midnight Sun” is a magnificent ballad beautifully sung and creatively set. The free interaction of Nash’s flute and Redhage-Ferber’s cello during the first 16 bars creates a dramatic atmosphere that is only heightened as Sergeant withholds the final vocal stanza until Patton and Brown have had their solo say. “At times I felt that I had bitten off more than I could chew,” the singer offers of her arranging concepts here and elsewhere on the album, “but then I knew I was working with musicians who could take it and go.” Here and throughout, to borrow a now-ancient vernacular, they are gone.
With just the trio in support, Sergeant shows her rhythmic audacity on “It’s All Right with Me.” The arrangement catapults from the stretched, out-of-tempo opening through some hard swinging and a meter shift in the final bridge. Through it all the vocal remains steady, enhancing each detail of the lyric. “I don’t have the brain for big band arranging,” Sergeant confesses, “but I was thinking here of that almost spinning out feeling of the live Thad Jones/Mel Lewis recordings.”
Nash joins the trio in support on “Show Me.” There’s more tempo and meter play, another authoritative Patton solo, and a second spot of the Sergeant/Brown tandem. Like the best jazz vocalists, she reshapes the melody in spots while retaining its emotional core.
“Sconsolato” is a ballad with music and lyrics by bassist Jimmy Woode that should be better known. Sergeant discovered the tune on a Mark Murphy recording from the ‘60s, and interprets it with one of the album’s most heartfelt performances. Percussionist Rogerio Bocatto delicately colors the medium Latin tempo, and Redhage-Ferber and Nash once again offer impeccable support.
A different kind of medley follows, with “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” embedded within the parenthetical frame of the first and last stanzas of “These Foolish Things.” Cello gets to sing the last eight bars of “Smoke,” with Sergeant only articulating the close of the immortal ballad as a kind of coda. Her control throughout is stunning.
“The Best is Yet to Come” exits on a more hopeful note, with a spry Afro-Cuban groove (plus a straight-ahead digression on the final bridge) and an optimistic, seductive vocal. If the fires of love have been extinguished on several previous tracks, the spark clearly survives.
A special singer can evoke a thermometer’s span of temperatures while sustaining a singular fire within. Kristen Lee Sergeant is special.