Nancy Harrow has been on the jazz scene for more than 30 years as a vocalist, earning the devotion of a dedicated following of fans and enormous respect among jazz musicians. But she is also a talented composer and librettist, having created song cycles from such classics as Willa Cather's Lost Lady. Here she wields her magic pen to create a musical passion play from Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Marble Faun. Hawthorne's tale is one of murder and its effect on its three major characters. This is a Greek tragedy put to music. Harrow composed the words and music and Sir Roland Hanna shapes it with his arrangements.
The respect she commands among jazz players is obvious given the top musicians who have joined her in this project. These fine instrumentalists are completely attuned to the thrust of the story and each tune (chapter) that comprises it. "What the Romans Do" spoofs certain habits of the privileged citizens of the Roman Empire. Here the singers are backed by Dave Bargeron's majestic tuba. The story also has application to today's war between the sexes. "Strong Women," sung by Harrow to the melancholy sax of Frank Wess, is a warning of what has happened since Biblical times to women who exert themselves, refusing to assume a traditional weak, subservient role to men. Wess on flute creates the necessary solemn mood for Anton Krukowski's plea to one of the protagonists to abandon his life of solitude in his tower and return to the world.
But it is the quartet of singers who carry the load. In addition to Harrow and Krukowski there is Grady Tate and Amy London. They come together beautifully when singing as a quartet (as on "Carnival"), and are ear-catching when soloing. Marble Faun recalls A Little Night Music. Not that the latter had anything to do with murder. But the music reflects the cynical, worldly, and brooding aura that dominates Stephen Sondheim's libretto. The similarity between the two shouldn't be surprising, as the latter was also based on the work of another explorer of the dark corners of the human mind, Ingmar Bergman. Nancy Harrow's album is innovative and entertaining, and is recommended.