Jazzy folk chicks: Jen Chapin, Deb Pasternak, Ember Swift

Jen Chapin performs at Club Helsinki on June 7

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., May 21, 2003) – Norah Jones wasn’t the first female pop singer to find an affinity between confessional, singer-songwriter folk music and jazz phrasing and rhythms. The style goes back at least as far as Rickie Lee Jones and Joni Mitchell in the 1970s.

And although Jones – who will appear twice in our region this summer, first at Proctor’s in Schenectady on June 30 and again at Tanglewood with Marian McPartland on August 30 -- might well prove to be the most commercially adept at the genre, there are plenty of others who straddle the folk-jazz divide with as much or more originality and soul – at least three of whom are headed to Club Helsinki (528-3394) in the next few days and weeks.

Canadian singer-songwriter Ember Swift adds a hefty dose of jazz to her outspoken, political folk-funk. Heavily indebted to Ani DiFranco, Swift – who makes her Berkshire debut tonight at Helsinki at 8 – evinces a dizzying command of styles on her latest album, Stilt Walking, a veritable three-ring circus of old-fashioned, piano-laced soul (“Ten Feet Tall”), Pretenders-style reggae-rock (“Rubber Bullets”), psychedelic western swing (“Boinked”), samba (“Slipping to My Knees”) and Gershwiniana (“Lick Your Lips”).

There has always been a strain of jazz running through Deb Pasternak’s singing and music, but perhaps never moreso than on her terrific new album, Home, which includes at least one full-fledged, standard-style original, “No Need to Venture Outside.” Pasternak -- who warms up the crowd at Helsinki for Guy Davis on Saturday at 8:30 -- hasn’t totally opted for jazz – long-time fans of the Boston-based singer-songwriter and Boston Music Award nominee will recognize her funky soul side on “Can Be” and her Crazy Horse, roots-rocking side on “The Road.”

Jen Chapin – who performs with her band at Helsinki on Saturday, June 7, at 9 -- is perhaps the jazziest of the bunch, partly because her band includes real jazz musicians, including bassist/husband Stephan Crump, saxophonist Chris Cheek, keyboardist Pete Rende, guitarist Jamie Fox, and drummer Dan Rieser, who played on Norah Jones’s multiple Grammy Award-winning album, Come Away With Me.

A Berklee-trained jazz singer and arranger, Chapin boasts a voice full of character and great emotional range. As heard on her intoxicating demo, Linger, she can be delicate and plaintive, as on the 9/11 song, “Hurry Up Sky,” and sultry and accusatory on “Passive People,” a doo-wop protest song. The title track is a soulful r&b ballad, and Chapin exploits the delicious corners and crevices of her voice on the African-inflected “Me Be Me,” built on a sinuous and sensual groove plucked out by Crump on acoustic bass.

With her organic sense of creating drama through musical and lyrical tension and release (the song “City” is a veritable pop-jazz opera in miniature, along the lines of Bruce Springsteen’s “Jungleland”), and a discerning flair for narrative poetry – very different from but undoubtedly influenced at some level by her late father, Harry Chapin – Jen Chapin could easily trade places, or at least rub shoulders, with Norah Jones at the top of the pop charts.

Critic’s picks

On their excellent new album, Gambling Eden (Signature Sounds), Pioneer Valley ensemble Rani Arbo and Daisy Mayhem still swing, but they have expanded their repertoire considerably beyond the old-time swing novelties of their debut. The new CD’s mix of American roots music -- originals and traditional folk songs (including “Stewball” and “O Death”) -- is rendered in innovative arrangements that emphasize rhythmic grooves and four-part vocal harmonies. The group celebrates its new CD as part of the Hilltown Folk series (413-625-2580) at Memorial Hall in Shelburne Falls on Sunday at 7.

The 34th annual Gonna Get Gon Folk Festival (518-872-0663) takes place this weekend at the Saratoga (N.Y.) County Fairgrounds. Musical performances run from tonight through Sunday and include Pat Humphries and Sandy Opatow, the Mammals, the McLeods, the Short Brothers, and Paddy Kilrain.

It would be great if a Berkshire contingent showed up in support of Pittsfield’s own Bob Thistle when he performs material off his great new album, Afterglow, at Caffe Lena (518-583-0022) in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., on Sunday at 7.

Like the three women discussed above, Louise Taylor is also a jazzy singer-songwriter, as heard on her latest CD, Velvet Town (Signature Sounds), on which Taylor adopts an electro-folk palette that recalls some of Patty Larkin’s recent efforts. Taylor is at Pioneer Arts Center of Easthampton (P.A.C.E.) (413-527-3700) in Easthampton on Saturday at 8.

Bring your anxieties and dreams to WAMC’s Performing Arts Center (518-465-5233 ext. 4) in Albany on Friday night at 8 when singer-songwriter Lucy Kaplansky – that’s Dr. Kaplansky to you – headlines at the Linda Norris Auditorium.

[This column originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on May 22, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]

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