'Lovely Changes' fits singer's evolution (The Washington Post)
By Jess Righthand
Friday, December 16, 2011
While most recent college grads have been floundering, flailing and generally grasping at straws to find any kind of employment, 25-year-old Lena Seikaly has instead managed - against all odds - to become one of Washington's preeminent jazz singers.
She put out an album, and a good one at that. She was selected for the Kennedy Center's prestigious Betty Carter's Jazz Ahead program. Strathmore named her an artist-in-residence, along with five other young local artists. And she performed at just about every jazz venue in the city.
"It kind of made me think, okay, I might actually be able to do this," says the Falls Church native.
Now scarcely more than three years out of the University of Maryland, where she majored in vocal performance, Seikaly has released her second independent album, "Lovely Changes," an exuberant collection of reimagined jazz standards, originals and selections from beyond the jazz canon. Her CD release party in October was at Blues Alley, and she packed the place. Twice.
And Seikaly is actually supporting herself, a feat that even some of the most seasoned jazz veterans never accomplish. Sure, she's young and resilient, lives in a group house and has no extra mouths to feed. But this singer sings and gets paid for it.
"Before being famous, or being an institution or anything, I just wanted to try to make a living," Seikaly says.
"Lovely Changes" can be interpreted both in literal jazz-speak (i.e. chord changes) and in the larger, metaphorical sense of musical evolution. Seikaly says the name originated on the bandstand, when, after playing a reharmonized version of "Skylark," her guitarist praised the arrangement, saying, "Man, those were some lovely changes."
The chord changes on the album truly are lovely. In songs such as "The Way You Look Tonight," the Elliott Smith tune "Waltz #1" and the original composition "Here Again," they sound effortless yet contemporary, soaring and then descending with poise and elan. This is, in part, a tribute to pianist Dan Roberts, but the sounds are also built into the arrangements. It is the chord changes, she says, that are "signature" to the recording.
As for more overarching changes, with this album Seikaly has unequivocally come into her own.
"I feel like I have a sound now. I have kind of a definitive, distinct style," she says. "I think it's just kind of a confluence of listening to a lot more singers and composing more and that sort of thing. Not only did my voice undergo stylistic changes, but the way that I wrote music, the way that I arranged music just became a little more sophisticated."
In the beginning, Seikaly says, she sounded much like the singers she listened to the most - namely, Ella Fitzgerald.
"I listen to recordings of myself in high school, and I sound like a mini Ella. Not that I sound just like her, but I definitely sound like she's all I listen to, and she was for a time."
Gradually, though, Seikaly began internalizing the styles of other great jazz singers - Sarah Vaughan, Anita O'Day, Carmen McRae and Betty Carter. Then came local artists and singers with nontraditional approaches to vocalizing, such as Gretchen Parlato, one of the hottest young voices in jazz.
"I don't know what it is about jazz," Seikaly says. "When I was studying opera in college, if I was trying to learn to do something, or how to do a run a certain way, my voice teacher would never say to listen to this recording or listen to that recording. You work it out on your voice on your own. But there's something in jazz, where it's more important to listen than it is to practice in the shower, almost. It's really just an osmotic process. You get to the point where everyone starts informing your sound."
Her sound is unmistakably rich, luxe yet agile. It's classic at a time when a softer, subtler approach is more in vogue.
Seikaly does give a nod to that more nuanced style in her version of Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Triste," laying out a harmonized a cappella vocal intro that feels like a page right out of Parlato's book. At the same time, though, the song remains entirely hers, with a brief but adept scat solo and robust, softly sustained notes in her lower register. It's a dynamic arrangement that demonstrates not only the vocalist's many influences, but also her ability to synthesize them into one cohesive, unique style.
So, what other lovely changes might be on the horizon for the young singer? Getting picked up by a label would be nice. She has lived in the Washington area her whole life, so maybe a move to New York at some point. Even Beirut - where Seikaly has family and where Arabic-jazz fusion is all the rage - is a possibility.
Seikaly says that with the arrival of her new album, she's not ready to go anywhere just yet. But don't assume she'll stick around forever.
"To be honest, any trajectory is possible right now," she says.
For a singer so open to her own musical evolution - and who has already done so much in such a short time - you'd better take her word for it.
(CapitalBop album review by Ken Avis -- 9/29/11):
Given Lena Seikaly’s firm grounding in harmony and composition, it’s no surprise that a musician sharing the bandstand with her once remarked on a harmonic progression she’d written: “Man, those are some lovely changes!” The phrase struck a chord and emerged as the title of her second recording.
On Seikaly’s new album, her second, there are Lovely Changes in more ways than one. The album presents a constantly shifting harmonic and rhythmic landscape in which familiar jazz classics by Cole Porter, Frank Loesser and Jerome Kern co-exist alongside Seikaly originals and unexpected arrangements of more contemporary songs by Elliot Smith, Brian Wilson and Amie Mann; a touch of 1967 Antonio Carlos Jobim bridges the gap. Seikaly’s cool, classic jazz voice breathes a cohesive beauty into the recording, the release of which she celebrates with a show this Sunday at Blues Alley. Her vocals are complemented by the savvy arrangements and sensitive musicianship that she and her band mates put forward; the group is comprised of Dan Roberts on piano, Tom Baldwin on bass and Dominic Smith on drums.
The opening ballad, “Amateur,” written by the rock musician Amie Mann, emerges as a swing waltz. With a slow tempo and sophisticated, world-worn lyric, the song could easily have been a Burt Bacharach/Dionne Warwick classic. Next, the brooding ballad, “Memento,” an original composition by Seikaly, takes us to an earlier era with the tenor sax of Elijah Jamal Balbed providing an appropriate after-hours ambience.
Seikaly slides into the bossa nova classic “Triste,” with her vocals turning light, tinder and playful over the Portuguese lyric. She whisks us away with the bebop-fueled “What Was I Supposed to Do,” another original that finds comfort in a new level of intimacy that was not present on her debut album, 2009’s Written in the Stars; its lyrics are contemporary, conversational and universal, bringing to mind the songwriting of Lorraine Feather. And Seikaly surprises with redefining arrangements of jazz standards “The Way You Look Tonight” and “Every Time We Say Goodbye.”
The twists and turns of her re-harmonized “The Way You Look Tonight” lend a sense of magic and intrigue beneath the vocal. “Every Time We Say Goodbye” benefits from an arrangement that allows breathing space, plus a well chosen, aching trumpet solo courtesy of Joe Herrera. Baldwin’s arrangement of “God Only Knows” provides an emotional highpoint, emphasizing the essence of the lyric, underscored by a yearning, impassioned bass solo that doesn’t waste a note. Baldwin and Seikaly worked together on both of her albums, and the chemistry is obvious during another moment of harmonized bass and voice on “The Way You Look Tonight.”
Closing the CD, perhaps the most unexpected choice of all, Elliot Smith’s “Waltz #1” is transformed by the chiming, icy Fender Rhodes of Roberts and the percussive touches of Dominic Smith into a drifting, dreamlike vehicle for Seikaly’s pure, sumptuous vocal line.
In just a few years, Seikaly has established herself as a major jazz vocalist and educator in the D.C. area, performing with the cream of the local crop. This recording delivers so many “lovely changes,” and builds on her debut release. The arrangements and musicianship on the album are crafted to serve the songs, leaving space for the vocal to shine front-and-center. That voice, the endlessly inventive arrangements, and the sensitive ensemble musicianship serve to make Lovely Changes a complete delight.
-- Ken Avis, CapitalBop (D.C.'s leading jazz publication)