Album reviews

Emma Smith – ‘Meshuga Baby’

Emma Smith – Meshuga Baby
(Wingsor Castle Records
. Album review by Leonard Weinreich)

Call me a pedant, but shouldn’t this album title read ‘Meshuga Bubbele’? For non-Yiddish speakers, the expression ‘meshuga’ has multiple interpretations: ‘crazy’, ‘screwball’, ‘unconstrained’ or even ‘out-of-control’. ‘Bubbele’, as you’ll have probably guessed by now, means ‘baby’. Judging by the wealth of words (‘chutzpah’, ‘kosher’, ‘maven’, ‘shlep’, ‘nebbish’, ‘shmutter’,shnook’) filched from Yiddish, English appears almost impoverished.

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Is Emma Smith ‘crazy’ or ‘out of control’? Neither. Repeated exposure to this new album suggests that the meshugas (the noun of meshuga) of this talented chanteuse, formerly one third of the celebrated Puppini Sisters trio, is a carefully crafted posture and her control is absolute. In other words, contrary to her chosen first track, Lenox and Sutton’s I Don’t Care (usually the wail of a petulant adolescent), Smith’s no vilde chaya (‘wild animal’ for non-Yiddish-speakers).

Rather, she is a well-seasoned jazz singer with an abundance of chops. Smart too, she’s learned that this job description often spells the fast lane to starvation (as the immortal Ronnie Scott once growled into his microphone: “I once knew a jazz musician who was a millionaire. Mind you, he started off a billionaire”) and has expanded her shtick beyond the usual styles. She’s also chosen her musical support with meticulous care: a thoroughbred trio with the tasteful Jamie Safir on piano, Conor Chaplin on bass and Luke Tomlinson on drums.

To the music: on the Gershwins’ But Not For Me, she handles the gymnastic vocalese version of the Chet Baker solo (now, would those be Georgie Fame’s lyrics?) with aplomb, precise voice control, passion, wit, playfulness and swing (thank you, Luke Tomlinson). And because she herself is a songwriter, she respects words and meaning and enunciates well (although, error alert: check the spellings of ‘Gershwin’ on the sleeve. Oy vey, the typographer left out the ‘h’). Her ear for unusual repertoire is pretty sophisticated: have you ever heard the Gerswins’ (sorry, Gershwins’) Think Pink? No, me neither. And how many seasoned jazz vocalists attempt Bob Dylan’s Hollis Brown or get on down with Willie Dixon’s Seventh Son?

In tandem with Safir, she’s composed intriguing originals like Sit On My Knee And Tell Me That You Love Me, My Revelation, Ballad Of A Wayward Woman and Monogamy Blues (where she almost overcomes my antipathy to scat). Ancient ditties like Kahn and Donaldson’s Makin’ Whoopee are repurposed and, most surprising of all, Irving Berlin’s There’s No Business Like Show Business, normally a high octane peppy production number crammed with enthusiasm, is taken at glacial tempo. And very successfully too. Shirley Horn would approve.

With a few exceptions, good jazz vocalists avoid excessive sentimentality. In approaching Jules Styne and Bob Merrill’s People (a significant hit for Barbra Streisand, an earlier ‘shaina maidel’ (try Googling it), she manages to reduce some of the almost lethal shmaltz content, courtesy of Safir’s inventive substitutions and a thoughtful bass solo from Chaplin. And, she signals an interesting parallel: early in her career, in an attempt to raise public awareness, Streisand (or, more likely, her enterprising press agent) chose to describe herself as ‘kooky’, yet another variation of ‘meshuga’. Meshuga, Smith might be but, to mangle a phrase from another immortal, writer Sid Perelman, ‘meshuga like a fox’.

This fine jazz album, crisply engineered by Andrew Lawson, contains a wealth of marvellous music and deserves to be widely enjoyed. Mazeltov.

LINK: Meshuga Baby on Bandcamp

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