Sienna Dahlen and Bill Coon – Balladextrous
(Cellar Music CMR060322 – review by Bruce Lindsay)
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Vocalist Sienna Dahlen and guitarist Bill Coon, both experienced performers on the Canadian jazz scene, bring that experience to Balladextrous as they reimagine nine songs drawn from the American Songbook. The result is an immersive and often moving album, notable for the performers’ considered and economical approaches to each song. Dahlen, a Juno award winner(*) , is based in Montreal, Coon has spent most of his career in Vancouver (where this album was recorded in 2020) but it sounds like the duo has been together day in and day out for years, such is the quality of their partnership on this record, and it’s a surprise to find that this is their debut recording.
Most of these songs have been best-known as ballads from the beginning, but some started life differently. “Happy Talk” is probably the most obvious example of this: known to most people as an upbeat, cheerful, ditty — especially in the capable hands of Captain Sensible. Dahlen and Coon strip it back and slow it way down, adding a plaintive edge to the idea that you’ve got to have a dream but clearly enjoying themselves: by the end, as Dahlen shifts to a wordless vocal, she seems to have entered something of a dreamlike state herself.
“I Get Along Without You Very Well” is one of the standout tracks. Dahlen gives plenty of time to each word, each syllable: she’s fooling no-one with her pretence of no longer needing her past lover, not even herself, but her delivery is heartbreaking in its attempted deception. Coon’s unobtrusive backing is perfect: while he never intrudes on Dahlen’s vocal, his playing reflects the lyric and Dahlen’s delivery, creating an accompaniment that’s both supportive and creative.
“Round Midnight” is another key track. Coon opens the song before Dahlen enters with the familiar first line and the pair begin their duet. Dahlen’s vocal is full of longing and she delivers every word with precision and clarity as she sings to her absent lover. Coon’s solo is beautiful, blending chords, harmonics, descending runs and more it tells the story without words. The vocal/guitar combo readily evokes a late-night feel and it would come as no surprise to find a tired, world-weary, bar-keep standing quietly in the corner while Coon and Dahlen are playing.
Balladextrous ends with “I’m in the Mood for Love.” It’s the album’s most upbeat number, the tempo is slightly faster than the rest, Coon gets almost funky, Dahlen sings with a sparkle in her voice, Coon’s solo gets feet tapping, the interplay is joyous. A fun end to a superb album that breathes fresh life into these classic songs.