Various Artists

Artswest: The Vocal Jazz Collective

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Here's a rarity: an album, nearly a vanity album, featuring a group of high school vocal jazz students, that happens to be good. Not just good by the standards of student ensembles, but good by the standards of modern vocal jazz. The students here do have help. The backing band is an exceptionally strong one -- the main hands on deck for Origin Records -- and the arrangements are worked out (in large part by the individual singers) for a tone and mood that fit the singers' strengths. Many pieces become more ponderous, more thoughtful, more fitting of modern jazz. "Time After Time" is slowed down and given a deeper sense of longing by Cari Stevens' careful phrasing. "You Don't Know What Love Is" lets Leanne Robinson flow up and down the scales in the realm of Bobby McFerrin. Prince's "Nothing Compares 2 U" is reworked more recognizably, though a little closer to its original intent. The voices here have already developed past the level of the average torch singer, using complex phrasings to add vulnerability, disdain, and longing to every song. The nuance of the performances is the factor that sells them. An excellent showcase for modern vocal jazz that isn't just attempting to mimic Ella Fitzgerald or Lena Horne.

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