Jazz singing comes in many flavors. Vocalists often redesign tunes, making themselves rather than the songs the focal point. Saxophonist Gary Foster says of her: “Singers who take liberties and change the melodies of songs to suit their vocal techniques distort the songs for me. I love VR’s musical honesty; she never tries to put something on the song that doesn’t belong there”.
VR has an exquisite sense of time. She comes by that quality honestly; she was a drummer before she met her husband, bassist Putter Smith. As a jazz wife, VR is an invaluable song resource, often supplying melodies and bridges to musicians at the house. One of Putter’s earliest gigs was backing singer Billy Eckstine. Mr. B’s pianist, Bobby Tucker, taught Putter to emphasize the song’s drama, a property that BR’s interpretations (like on Billy Strayhorn’s “Daydream”) are bathed in. Putter says of VR, “she moves me”.
This band is a family, and the result of the associations and intersections of many years. Pianist Jim Szilagyi who was with the original “Brazil 66” has been playing with Putter since 1959. He’s a model of well-placed support and canny use of space in his playing. Multi-instrumentalist Isla Eckinger is a giant of Swiss jazz, whose associations include Ben Webster, Dexter Gordon, Mal Waldron and many others. He was playing tasty trombone when putter first heard him. Ten years later, Smith was surprised to see Eckinger playing the vibraphone very well. “Then he picked up the bass,” Putter recalls, “and he was so good I actually got mad. ‘Dammit, Isla – leave something for the rest of us!’” Here, Eckinger confines himself to pithy trombone solos and ensemble work. Isla’s association with Putter, Jim and tenor saxophonist Chuck Manning dates back to his arrival in L.A. in 1986. Manning plays in many settings, including Bobby Bradford’s avant-garde Mo’Tet, but never sounds more melodically inventive than he does with this crew. Drummer Tim Pleasant, who was associated with Mark Turner and Kurt Rosenwinkel during his 22 years in NYC is coveted for his taste and the rhythmic shim he can bring to any setting. Hear how he subtly but pointedly moves “Comes Love” along. Against the finely wrought lyricism of Chuck Manning’s tenor and Eckinger’s trombone—simmered by drummer Tim Pleasant’s percussive heat—VR’s vocals could come from a great lyrical instrumentalist like Art Farmer or Chet Baker.
VR’s art – telling the truth about the songs, using time like a dealer judiciously turning over the cards, and being every bit as musical as her band – is a flavor that never goes out of style.