Veronica Swift – This Bitter Earth
(Mack Avenue MAC1177. CD Review by Leonard Weinreich)
My first encounter with vocalist Veronica Swift was a YouTube clip shot in pianist Emmet Cohen’s apartment. Dressed in an idiosyncratic body-hugging white outfit, complete with floppy cap, flashy feathers and flares, Ms Swift conjured a vision of Carnaby Street in the 70s. It suited her high-voltage delivery of I Want To Be Happy (a popular morale-boosting ditty from the 1930s Great Depression) performed with controlled abandon and chops to spare, a welcome reminder of Anita O’Day in her prime.
But that was before her latest CD, This Bitter Earth, tumbled onto our doormat with both title and sleeve redolent of psychodrama. The lively YouTube sprite had been replaced by a duotone fugitive from The Handmaid’s Tale, peering balefully through an unkempt lock of hair, a wary scowl under a floppy cowl. It would seem that the state of our planet, politics and society have plunged Ms Swift into a (temporary, we hope) state of depression.
But misery has inspired some memorable vocal albums: think Sinatra’s Only The Lonely and some notable songs: Strange Fruit, Black Coffee, Don’t Explain (and don’t get us started on the blues). On the title track, a slow-paced treatment of Clyde Otis’s This Bitter Earth, the entry of a mournful cello tells us this isn’t I Want To Be Happy. Fortunately, on the following track, melancholia is dispelled by a ray of sunlight with How Lovely To Be A Woman by Lee Adams and Charles Strouse, a whoop-de-doo celebration of femininity. Emmet Cohen barnstorms on piano and, throughout the album, his incisive comping, fills and responses are balm for the soul.
The gifted Ms Swift is equipped with vocal technique to spare. Her pitch is precise, her enunciation crisp. She has a finely calibrated sense of dynamics and exercises admirable control over vibrato. Her range is wide, her voice flexible, her time enviable and she swings without shame. And, rare creature, she can scat convincingly without curling the toes of her audience.
On this album, she’s also radical regarding repertoire. Ever since the late 1920s, jazz singers have leaned heavily on the works of the Gershwins, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Fats Waller, Harold Arlen, Rogers and Hart, Hoagy Carmichael and other masters, resulting in the choicest songs having been covered and re-interpreted on a zillion occasions. Familiarity, as we’re all aware, can induce boredom. But as tastes and fashions take unexpected turns, where do emerging young singers find unheard and unhackneyed material, avoiding what Miles Davis dismissed as “warmed-over turkey”?
From inside the jazz universe, Ms Swift introduces a couple of neglected numbers: Bob Dorough’s You’re The Dangerous Type and Dave Frishberg’s grateful hymn to the comforts of The Sports Page (contrasting the awfulness of the current affairs sections), effortlessly negotiating the complex verbal hurdles. For a couple of tracks, the album’s pervasive mood makes it almost mandatory to examine two relevant classics: George and Ira Gershwin’s The Man I Love, a tribute to hope and yearning (“…maybe I will meet him one day…”) and a ballad admired by 1930s jazz musicians, Prisoner of Love (highly appropriate to lockdown), by Russ Colombo and Clarence Gaskill. She skilfully pumps fresh oxygen and whirling arabesques into each song, while in the background, Emmet Cohen mischievously channels Erroll Garner. Todd Whitelock at the control desk is responsible for the life-like fidelity.
From outside the jazz universe, she duets wordlessly with Aaron Johnson’s resonant bass flute on Richard and Robert (the brothers’ who wrote the ‘Mary Poppins’ score) Sherman’s Trust In Me before segueing into the lyrics over a sensuous Latin beat. On Lionel Bart’s ‘Oliver!’ hit, As Long As He Needs Me (a comment on imperfect human relationships?), she neutralises the mawkish content before swinging into daredevil vocal trapeze work never requiring the safety net provided by her driving rhythm section. Then, with a mighty swoop, she dives into the rarely heard Everybody Has The Right To Be Wrong, a ‘mea culpa’ number from Sinatra’s stalwart songsmiths, Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn, over a hip-shaking cha-cha-cha accentuated by drummer Bryan Carter.
While most jazz singers have shown reverence for the fecund repertoire of Rogers and Hart (where Richard Rogers composed the music prior to the lyrics were written), they’ve seldom ventured into the very different world of the Rogers and Hammerstein partnership (where the music was composed after the dramatic lyrics were written). On this album, Ms Swift pioneers two examples of Hammerstein’s prescient lyrics with messages, each an appeal for broader racial and cultural tolerance: You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught from ‘South Pacific’ (1949) and Getting To Know You from ‘The King And I’ (1951). In a cymbal’s flick, she switches from being a Broadway diva hovering over luscious strings to an unrestrained vocal gymnast over Cohen’s and bassist Yasushi Nakamura’s hard swinging accompaniment.
However, from even further outside the jazz universe, she performs a Carole King/Gerry Goffin number: He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss). Probably included to highlight violence to women, its lyrics do the opposite. Reviewing this album on International Women’s Day, violence to women is an abhorrence that should never be condoned under any circumstances. As a card-carrying admirer of the talented and generous Ms King (who once agreed to my using one of her songs free of royalties for a road-safety film) I’m at a loss to imagine why it was ever written.
The final track, credited to Amanda Palmer, is simply titled Sing. The minimalist lyrics are augmented by three backing singers, two enthusiastic choirs, a string section and Armand Hirsch’s uninhibited guitar. The studio must have been packed with good feelings and we trust that Ms Swift’s depression has lifted and her desire for happiness has been granted.
This Bitter Earth is released on 19 March 2021
BAND: Emmet Cohen, piano (also celeste); Yasushi Nakamura, bass; Bryan Carter, drums on all tracks. Plus: Armand Hirsch, guitar ; Lavinia Pavlish and Meltar Forkosh, violins, Andrew Griffin, viola, Susan D. Mandel, cello; Aaron Johnson, alto saxophone/ flutes; Steven Feifke, Ryan Paternite, Will Wakefield plus the Stone Robinson Elementary School and Walton Middle School Girls Choirs, background vocals.
Recorded New York, N.Y. during 2020.