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Matthew Ruddick

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Author of Funny Valentine, an acclaimed new biography of the jazz trumpet player and singer, Chet Baker.
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Sunday, 21 March 2021 01:39

Veronica Swift - This Bitter Earth

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Breathtaking new album addresses some of the problems we face today.

According to her website, Veronica Swift’s musical passions encompass songs from the 1920s and 1930s, opera and heavy metal. And on her second album for Mack Avenue, This Bitter Earth, she takes on Disney, Carole King and punk cabaret band, The Dresden Dolls.

In less capable hands, such eclecticism might not work; but like her label-mate, the wonderful Cecile McLorin Salvant, Swift is a born storyteller, and manages to shine new light on a variety of different songs.

She is helped in this by an amazingly responsive, flexible band; the ever-impressive Emmet Cohen on piano, Yasushi Nakamura on bass and Bryan Carter on drums. Other guests join from time to time, but special mention should be made of Steven Feifke, who contributes vibrant and innovative string arrangement on a few of the tracks.

The songs she has chosen are vaguely thematic, and address various problems facing the world today. 

The title track, and first single, is simply outstanding. The song was made famous by Dinah Washington, but Swift adopts Max Richter’s later arrangement, which was used for Shutter Island. Swift’s vocal is spellbinding, and sends shivers down the spine when she lets go.

Listen to This Bitter Earth here:

How Lovely To Be A Woman begins with a dramatic flourish from Cohen, with Swift delivering a show-stopping performance, bringing out the humour in the lyric.

In a jazz setting we are more accustomed to hearing Rodgers and Hart, but here we get the chance to re-discover two songs by Rodgers and Hammerstein. You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught delivers a message of tolerance in a multi-cultural world, which is more relevant than ever, whilst Getting To Know You, from The King And I, provides a good follow-up, suggesting we can learn from one another.

Gershwin’s The Man I Love is more traditional, perhaps, but Bob Dorough’s You’re The Dangerous Type gives Swift the chance to really let go, delivering that rare thing – a really enjoyable scat solo.

Carol King’s He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss) – did she really write that? – is a brave, and perhaps divisive song choice. It’s a hard song to listen to, but that’s surely the point. This should not be an issue sixty years later, but it is, and the simple arrangement simply brings home the uncomfortable truth of the matter. 

Trust In Me is excellent, and sees Swift trade lines with Aaron Johnson’s flute in a seductive opening. Dave Frishberg’s The Sports Page is re-imagined to reference fake news, whilst Sing, by the aforementioned Dresden Dolls, brings the album to a dramatic conclusion, demonstrating another side of Swift’s remarkable range.

Veronica Swift is the daughter of jazz pianist Hod O’Brien and singer Stephanie Nakasian, but has truly found her own voice here. It’s a quite dazzling performance, and hopefully one she can bring over to these shores before long.

 

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