Lissy Walker sings jazz, but she brings her own unique spin to the music by adding elements drawn from the worlds of folk, country, and the 70s singer/songwriter movement. She's been an actress and singer for most of her life and brings a nuanced, dramatic sensibility to her jazz vocals and her new recording, Wonderland.
Her critically acclaimed debut, Life Is Sweet, included some of the Bay Area’s and New York’s finest jazz and folk musicians, including John R. Burr on piano, Jon Evans on bass, Scott Nygaard on guitar, and Steven Bernstein on trumpet, with arrangements that brought together an innovative mix of jazz and folk.
When it was time for a follow-up, Walker reassembled the Life Is Sweet team, along with some new special guest players. The ensemble went into Berkeley’s legendary Fantasy Studios on Valentine’s Day and cut Wonderland, an album that brings Walker’s subtle intensity to bear on another collection of gems from the American Songbook, as well as a few modern classics.
For most of us, the word “wonderland” conjures up images of Lewis Carroll’s surrealistic fables, as well as a dizzying array of misty-eyed impressions gleaned from a lifetime of listening to popular songs and reading romantic novels. Walker shares some of the same impressions, but with more of an edge. “This is an album of love songs,” Walker says, “but the overall feel this time is darker, tinted with a more mature hue. The romance is still there, with the hope and dreams tempered by a touch of reality.”
Lyrically, the songs on Wonderland deal in dreams and illusions, desires fulfilled and unfulfilled, and the power of reflection and intent. Walker’s sweet, smoky, purring alto, is perfectly suited to these songs of yearning, imbuing them with a realistic combination of longing and resignation, with just a hint of playfulness to bring a bit of light into the terrain of emotional uncertainty.
Musically, the focus is on songs from two great songwriting eras: swing tunes from the 20s/early 30s and folky singer/songwriter ballads and anthems from the 70s. Walker's burnished vocals have a hint of restrained passion that suggest country music, but her phrasing, which dances around and before the beat, is pure jazz. Her interpretations, and the virtuosity of the band, blend the two eras together, resulting in a classic, yet contemporary, vibe--a perfect hybrid.
“Alice in Wonderland has always fascinated me,” Walker says. “I love the themes of curiosity, imagination, riddles, and the frustration of expectations the book conjures. I call the album Wonderland because of where these songs live: a place of desire, the place we start from on our personal journey. Love opens doors and invites us to give our best, but there’s always uncertainty when we love.”
Wonderland opens with a starry-eyed medley of “Dream a Little Dream/I’ll See You in My Dreams.” The free, slightly asymmetrical playing of pianist John R. Burr, bassist Jon Evans, and clarinetist Ben Goldberg produces a hallucinogenic tone before the ensemble swings into a hot gypsy jazz rhythm, featuring Burr’s sparkling keys and Steven Bernstein’s muted trumpet adding counterpoint to Walker’s laid-back vocal and quiet, scatted improvisations.
“Tonight You Belong to Me” was a hit for sister act Patience and Prudence in 1956, but it was written in 1926 for Gene Austin by Billy Rose and Lee David. The opening verse is rarely sung, but Walker does it here, with Burr’s piano and Scott Nygaard’s mandolin giving the music the feel of a hot Saturday evening at a swinging barn dance. Walker’s lilting ornamentations give the lyric a sly, seductive feeling. “The lyrics are really pretty brazen,” Walker remarks. “‘I know you belong to somebody new, but tonight you belong to me,’ and there’s an ambiguous aspect as well. You’re not really sure if this scenario will end in pleasure or pain.”
The oldest song on the record is “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles,” a disconsolate waltz that, though it dates back to 1918, conveys a sense of pathos and longing that is timeless. Walker’s wistful vocal is full of whispered blue notes and delicate harmonies with Burr’s crystalline piano, Evan’s sonorous bass, Nygaard’s mellow acoustic guitar, and Phil Worman’s sighing cello offering subtle support.
Richard Thompson’s “I Wish I Was a Fool for You” gets a subtle driving folk/rock arrangement with Burr’s inventive jazz piano augmented by his work on the Hammond organ. Drummer Jason Lewis plays with the time to complement Walker’s heartfelt vocal. Nygaard’s gentle guitar introduces the Rogers and Hart standard “Isn’t It Romantic?” Evans composed a swooning, lush string arrangement (Carla Kihlstedt on violin I and II and Liz Schultze on cello) to harmonize with Walker’s shimmering, soulful vocal. The set ends on a jaunty note with “Lullaby in Ragtime,” a tune that evokes the feeling of a late night, sleepy New Orleans jam session. It features Walker’s most sultry vocal, with Goldberg on clarinet, Bernstein on slide trumpet, and the rhythmic magic of drummer Lewis.
Lissy Walker was born in Hollywood, but the family moved to Berkeley, CA, in the late 60s. She came of age in the 70s, an exciting musical time. Her parents played classical music in the house, but her grandparents, who lived upstairs, loved jazz and Big Band. “My grandfather played the organ and the trumpet, and my grandmother, who was a self-described flapper in her day, played the piano and loved to sing,” Walker says. “I still work out my arrangements on the hand-painted piano she left me.”
At age ten, Walker took classical piano from the lady next door. “I loved playing Bach and Mozart, but I was in love with Scott Joplin’s ragtime. I asked my teacher if we could work on one of his tunes, but she was schooled in classical music only.” Undaunted, Walker bought a book of Joplin’s rags and taught herself. “I also loved singing along to records after school, especially Ella Fitzgerald, The Andrew Sisters, Manhattan Transfer, and Harry Nilsson’s The Point.” She then discovered her grandparents’ sheet music in the piano bench. “There was an extensive collection of songs,” Walker says, “ I started working on them and was delighted to find that eventually I could accompany myself while singing. The possibilities were endless.”
At Berkeley High School, Walker appeared in plays and musicals and toured Europe with the choir. She also attended the Young Conservatory at the American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.)after school and on weekends. "Acting was directly linked to singing for me,"says Walker. "I was singing in a variety of styles and venues--I then decided I wanted to sing with the acclaimed BHS Jazz Band." She asked jazz director, Phil Hardymon, if she and her friends could sing three-part harmony songs with the ensemble, and he put together a jazz combo. "It was a very creative time and place," Walker recalls.
Walker studied theater and voice at UCLA and graduated from the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York City, studying acting with Sanford Meisner and Richard Pinter. After graduation, Walker was a principal performer at the Home for Contemporary Theater and Art. She appeared in numerous productions, including The School for Jolly Dogs, an English Music Hall review, and Charles Mee’s The Imperialists at the Club Cave Canem, which was picked up by Joseph Papp’s Public Theater and featured in the New York Times.
After eight years in New York, Walker and her husband, cellist Philip Worman, moved back to San Francisco. She appeared in the award-winning productions of Tom Jones and The Sea Plays, and in A.C.T.’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, one of her first dramatic roles after a lifetime of musicals and comedy.
Following the birth of her two children, Walker thought about returning to the stage, but singing provided a more immediate path to personal and artistic satisfaction. “I feel like I can get the same feeling within the framework of a song and I’m not at the mercy of someone else’s vision. Songs are like little plays. Singing is more personal and I love the the emotional immediacy of popular song.”
Walker immersed herself in jazz and learned how to write charts, arrange, and approach a song from a jazz singer's prospective. She soon refined her unique style, adding acoustic guitar and cello to her sets, bringing all the elements of the music she loved together. Audiences were moved by the melancholic melodies of irving Berlin and the honky-tonk rhythms of Randy Newman. Fellow musicians encouraged Walker to record soon after she began singing again.
A meeting with Jon Evans led to Life Is Sweet, and he returned to co-produce Wonderland, another collection marked by the band’s subtle virtuosity and Walker’s deep, simmering vocals, delivering an album that continuously reveals emotional and musical intensity.
“…Inspired choices and arrangements, Lissy Walker imbues her jazz phrasing with a country edge, and establishes herself as a singer to watch and—to listen—for."
~Bruce Lindsay, AllAboutJazz
“...a sheer delight from start to finish. Walker purrs, coos and swaggers sultrily through the Songbook…one beautiful, delectably sweet whole.”
~David McGee, The Absolute Sound
“ Jazz, folk and country are fused beautifully…emotional, lovely, dreamy, sweet…Lissy’s vocals are simply beautiful.”
~Wilbert Sostre, JazzTimes
“ Walker has a voice that brings out the subtle nuances of the song she sings, with jazzy arrangements that are flavored with folk, pop, and country music.”
~j. poet, East Bay Express
“I’ve discovered a new voice…”
~Jonathan Schwartz, WNYC
“Pretty and wispy…conveying so much with each word…it feels like you’re in a dream.”
~Spoony’s Music Diary
“Lissy’s voice covers the gamut from sweet and innocent to strong and knowing…”
~Harold Sanditen, Cabaret Scenes
“Walker’s musical journey has brought her to the crossroads of jazz, folk and theatre, and her album draws from all these elements.”
~The Best of Entertainment, SF Chronicle
“…an eclectic riff on the vocal jazz tradition…a sassy, playful voice…”
~David Becker, The Examiner