Haunted Heart is the debut of the "other" Renée Fleming -- the smoky chanteuse lurking behind America's most prominent operatic soprano. It is a transformation so organic and whole that it may astonish even those who already know of Fleming's history with jazz singing. Make no mistake: this is not "Renée sings Jazz" in the vein of "Kiri Sings Cole Porter," or even "Dawn Upshaw Sings Rodgers and Hart." This is not an operatic voice in wonderland. It is a new voice, the voice of an entirely different musical persona, and on its own terms something quite successful.
The husky yet limpid, entirely un-operatic sound Fleming cultivates for this album is distinctive and original, not the result of mimicry. But if you need an image to conceptualize what you'll hear, think Anita Baker or a leaner-sounding Patti Cathcart: deep, warm, breathy, but with deceptive freedom and clarity. Paired with the sprawling pianism of Fred Hersch and the effects-laden guitar of Bill Frisell, Fleming's singing stands strangely out of time, neither old nor fully modern. It is decidedly old fashioned in many ways, a return to the front-and-center vocalism of the 1940s and 1950s -- an album about songs, and about singing. But the eclectic track list -- including famous songs by Lennon and McCartney, Bill Carey, Stevie Wonder, Gustav Mahler (yes, that Gustav Mahler), and Stephen Foster -- could only be a product of postmodern thinking, in which boundaries of time and style become increasingly meaningless.
That eclecticism is a great strength of Haunted Heart. Hearing Fleming deliver a torch song to beat all in "You've Changed," only to follow it up with the joyful "My Cherie Amour" and then a stylishly down-tempo rendition of "In My Life" gives new legs, and fresh context, to all three. But that inclusiveness eventually catches up with Fleming, and the second half of the album begins to wander as she inserts songs from the Classical repertory. Mahler's "Liebst du um Schönheit" seems lonely clothed only in sparse guitar accompaniment; and Emile Paladilhe's "Psyché" suddenly transports Fleming back to the soprano register -- the only time on the entire album when you'll be reminded of Fleming's concert singing.
Fleming shows admirable expressive versatility, and fluidity that few singers of any style could match. Her singing is deeply honest and imbued with an arresting sexuality. Frisell's distinctive guitar echoes give a surreal poignancy to the plaintive "Answer Me," and a snappy good nature to "When Did You Leave Heaven?" His finest moment is the concluding "Hard Times Come Again No More," in which his gentle accompaniment mirrors the change of text and vocal inflection throughout each of the four verses. Fred Hersch's arrangements are for the most part very effective, though they have a tendency to ramble, squandering songs' momentum and sense of structure. His playing, and especially his accompanying in slow ballads, shows exquisite touch and sensitivity, and a fluid sense of rhythm that is both enveloping and clear.