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Lea DeLaria

The Live Smoke Sessions


by Ian Mann

October 23, 2008


A big, swinging noise from the self styled "chick singer with balls".

Lea DeLaria is not your archetypal decorative female jazz singer. Of androgynous appearance she is also an actor and comedian, an out lesbian and a political activist. Musically she takes her inspiration from that great maverick Charles Mingus and likes to describe herself as “a chick singer with balls”. Her brand of jazz singing is patently not about easy listening, even her CD liner notes have an air of confrontation about them.

“The Live Smoke Sessions” was recorded live in a New York night club with DeLaria accompanied by a core band consisting of pianist Gil Goldstein, bassist Mary Ann McSweeney and drummer Josh Giunta. Saxophonist Seamus Blake features on a couple of numbers and there are two duets with the UK’s own Ian Shaw. Janette Mason produces and also has a hand in many of the arrangements.

It was DeLaria’s intention to replicate “the atmosphere of the Village Vanguard circa 1948” and she does so with a standards repertoire drawing on “The Great American Songbook” with the acid wit of Cole Porter particularly prominent. Harold Arlen is also well represented. Her two previous albums have tackled Broadway show tunes (“Play it Cool” 2000) and jazz versions of classic rock songs (“Double Standards” 2005). 

DeLaria has a big, bluesy and indeed ballsy voice that is particularly suited to the declamatory opener, Arlen and Harburg’s “Down With Love”. She sounds even better on Joe McCoy’s blues “Why Don’t You Do Right"with Blake adding bluesy, smoky saxophone that really helps the song to take off. It’s a shame that he isn’t heard more extensively.

Not that there is anything wrong with DeLaria’s regular collaborators. Goldstein is a supremely talented pianist and a superb accompanist and McSweeney and Giunta a crisp and swinging rhythm section. The three of them keep the music moving with Goldstein delivering a series of engaging and pithy solos throughout the album.

A defiant “Miss Otis Regrets” (done as a bluesy march) and a flirtatious “The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea” (featuring her trading scat licks with Blake), keep the energy levels up before “Come Rain Or Come Shine” demonstrates that she can also handle a ballad.

Mason’s blues tinged arrangement of “Love Me Or Leave Me” features a dazzling solo from Goldstein over McSweeney’s insistent bass walk/groove.

Cole Porter’s “Love For Sale” is initially approached in a slowed style that emphasises the inherent sleaziness of the song’s subject matter. It’s a highly effective treatment with Giunta’s deft and subtly accented drumming adding greatly to the atmosphere. The song later gathers momentum building through a scat passage to a big blues wailing finale.

Another imaginative arrangement of another Porter tune, in this instance “Night And Day”, finds DeLaria flirting shamelessly with her bassist.

The spoken word “Introduction To Puff” is a brief reminder of DeLaria’s skills as a comic and social commentator, the rest of the between song banter has been edited out. The song itself, a witty paean to the pleasures of smoking sees DeLaria duetting with Ian Shaw, the pair trading trading increasingly outrageous scat licks over the trio’s scalding swing. It’s great musical entertainment and enormous fun.

A pause for breath with the wistfully brooding ballad “You Don’t Know What Love Is” featuring a beautifully measured and wonderfully resonant solo from McSweeney and Goldstein’s sublime piano touch.

Finally DeLaria welcomes Shaw back for a joyous romp through “Jumpin’ With Symphony Sid” complete with more vocal gymnastics from the front line duo.

“The Smoke Sessions” is not the most subtle vocal performance you’ll ever hear but it is energetic and exciting and there’s no doubt that DeLaria can swing. Her interpretations of “Come Rain and Come Shine” and “You Don’t Know What Love Is ” show that she can do quiet if she wants to, but really she’s at her happiest belting it out. The band are terrific too, with Goldstein particularly impressive.

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