Nanette Natal

Stairway to the Stars

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On this, her fourth album for her production company Benyo Music, New Yorker Nanette Natal continues her vocal quest for a sophisticated and daring exploration of standard material. The album has just seven cuts, but there is just under a hour of music, which means that each tune receives extended attention from the group, giving them plenty of time to explore every nook and cranny, every twist and turn on the melody. Natal is one of the preeminent apostles of scatting and wordless vocalizing; in her improvisional approach and in her voice, she draws upon the likes of such artists as Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Sheila Jordan and Jeanne Lee. On "When Your Love Has Gone," she stretches the words to their breaking point. Heavily backed by the progressive alto of Ed Palermo, Natal recreates the melody to this tune several times over. "Fascinating Rhythm" is a duet with the snare drum of percussionist Todd Turkisher; keeping the listener's attention for almost six minutes with this spare instrumentation is quite a feat. The highlight of the album is a 10½-minute offering of "I Won't Dance." Improvisional treatments of this length are a challenge -- too often the musicians run out of ideas before the tune ends, or their playing becomes banal. Not so here. The four instrumentalists come together like the John Coltrane Quartet, with the alto saxophone added and Natal's vocal jaunting assuming the Coltrane tenor part. This recalls the interchanges between Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley when they were with Miles Davis. Natal adds sweetness to her passion for a straightforward rendition of "Crazy He Calls Me," aided and abetted by a plaintive Mark Soskin piano. As this is a recording of the first set of a 1990 live session from Birdland in New York, the audience and the musicians were ready for something less hectic so they could catch their breath. But the group gets back to the extemporizing mode for "You Go to My Head." Palermo's alto kicks things off with an understated opening chorus, punctuated from time to time by Turkisher's drums. Natal comes in with an off-center and curiously accented exposition of the melody with Soskin's piano sneaking in and out. About halfway through, Natal begins her wordless vocal gyrations, sounding on occasion like a snake charmer's flute. Palermo and Soskin then take over for about three more minutes of creative playing, with Natal coming in with the lyrics to end the proceedings and providing a fitting coda to an innovative, entertaining album.

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