Donna Lewis – Brand new Day
(Whirlwind Recordings. WR4688. CD Review by Alison Bentley)
Double take- was this really the Welsh singer Donna Lewis, who had a massive worldwide pop hit in the 90s? Recording with the members of the Bad Plus? It is the very same- and a very fine recording it is, balancing her emotive voice with the modern architecture of the jazz piano trio.
Her own three compositions stand out- Lewis sings with a particular vulnerability and openness. Sleep has lots of space, Lewis’ voice breathy with an astringent twist, reminiscent of a Scandinavian style of jazz singing (from Sidsel Endresen to Emilia Martensson.) ‘There’s no hiding here,’ she sings, as some notes fade into pure breath over an understated back beat. The energy builds with thrumming bass (Reid Anderson) and a touch of drum ‘n’ bass from Dave King. Lewis’ Brand New Day has a languidness, and an almost gospel feel to the open piano chords, framing the voice. There’s a strong, acoustic arrangement of her 1996 hit I Love You Always Forever, subduing its anthemic qualities into gentle hip hop. The arrangement is by her producer David Torn, recalling Robert Glasper’s arrangements for Gretchen Parlato. Ethan Iverson’s arpeggios billow beautifully behind Lewis’ soft bluesy drawl. The coda is irresistible, building with tricky piano riffs and glorious cymbals that get under the skin as much as the vocal lines.
There are versions of recent songs, all with strong melodies. Damien Rice’s Amie, with its paradoxical lyrics, has an unhurried feel, and voluptuous piano. Gnarls Barkley’s Crazy is slower and darker than the original. Iverson plays not just fills, but his own musical narrative complementing Lewis’ own. In Chocolate Genius’ My Mom, Lewis has the sweet crying tone of early Rickie Lee Jones- childhood memories devolving into dementia. Bowie’s Bring Me the Disco King originally had a jazz-rock, piano trio treatment. Here, there’s a tango feel which drifts into atonal piano, and insistent resonant bass riffs that echo the vocals. A deep piano glissando pulls back dramatically into an intimate conclusion.
There are older songs: Neil’s Everybody’s Talkin’ At Me is reworked as a Latin piece, light hearted and uplifting. Helpless has a beautiful intro and coda diverting from the simple chords of Neil Young’s original. The piano cascades ecstatically behind the vocals, fading into free jazz. Lewis sings Walk on By with just Ron Affif’s guitar- it’s slow and atmospheric, but feels a little as though it’s slipped in from another album. Lewis has always enjoyed Jobim’s songs- and it shows. Waters of March opens freely, colla voce, giving space for the complex lyrics to unfold; the trio gets more convoluted as the images build. Lewis really tastes the words. ‘The promise of life, the joy in your heart.’ A groove starts, only for the piano chords to course wildly down like the March floods themselves.
Lewis’ winsome voice and Iverson, Reid and King’s musicianship are an inspired partnership, drawing together familiar and unfamiliar songs into something new.