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 Friday, 19 September 2014
An “Intimate” Embrace From P.J. Parker PDF Print
Written by Andrea Canter, Contributing Editor   
Wednesday, 18 April 2007
ImageI live in a jazz-rich community that boasts at least a dozen vocalists whose talents easily equal the best in New York or LA, yet they remain, for various reasons, relatively unknown beyond our outer ring suburbs. I suspect this is true in many other locales where home-grown talent rarely attains national recognition. Even in New York—or perhaps especially in New York—it is likely that dozens of top-notch artists fly below the radar, known and appreciated only by those in their immediate environs. Each year I receive at least a handful of indie-label and self-produced CDs from musicians who, like the best in my area, have as much to offer a jazz audience as any who top the charts and polls. Intimate (PJB Creatives, 2006), a self-produced recording from native New York vocalist PJ Parker, is an appealing debut from an artist deserving wider recognition.

Singing and performing came naturally to PJ, whose father was a pianist/composer/conductor, and whose mother was a dancer and singer. She recalls performing Mel Tormé’s “Christmas Song” at age three, and taking requests from patrons at Long Island restaurants as a five-year old. Early success through school and church performances led her to study music at New York University, where she studied voice in five languages. After graduation, PJ found plenty of work from concert halls and dinner theater to summer stock and musical revues, traveling with show bands and singing with orchestras in New York and Atlantic City.

A long-running gig at Rosse’s—“a lovely little place tucked in the mountains of Martinsville, New Jersey”—featuring just voice and piano provided the live music for Intimate. In dedicating the recording to her father (“a man of deep soul and poetry”), PJ notes that Tom Parker introduced her to the classic repertoire of Frank Sinatra, the Hi-Lo's, Sarah Vaughn, Carmen McCrae and Tony Bennett, and “to the simple magic of piano and voice.” That simple magic is indeed pared down to a set of sixteen duets, PJ’s vocals supported only by either Vinnie Ruggieri or John Bianculli on piano. Notes husband/producer Bill Bowman, “There were no written arrangements. PJ simply called out a key and a tempo to the pianist, and off they went. So what you're hearing is the music, as it happened, which really is the essence of jazz, I think.”

The title Intimate refers not only to the small club ambience and interaction between vocalist and pianist, but to the gentle passion that PJ injects into each song, each track a personal statement that ensures a recording that goes far beyond the usual set of familiar standards. While it might be easy to push such fare into the background as pleasant “aural wallpaper,” in doing so the listener would miss the spontaneously crafted arrangements, the clarity of the voice, the unwavering pitch, the essence of the lyrics. Contrary to cabaret or “lounge” singing, Intimate is a perfect example of “jazz” singing—without going outside the sensibilities of a mainstream audience, PJ makes every note and phrase a personal experiment. Her interpretation is defined by nuance rather than by big leaps and twists, which is not to say that she doesn’t reshape notes and phrases along the way. With her delicate but not fragile approach, one senses that PJ has listened extensively to Billie Holiday without any suggestion of imitation. Her tone reminds me a bit of Jane Monheit, not as creamy and more prone to adventure.

Eleven of the sixteen tracks feature Vinnie Ruggieri on piano, with John Bianculli on the rest. Both prove to be elegant foils for Parker, often generating a feel of a larger ensemble, contributing their own ideas that add layers to the journey. Ruggieri in particular creates basslines that had me wondering, frequently, if there really was an acoustic bass player missing from the credits.

While all tracks are familiar—even well-worn—pages from the Great American Songbook, the selections are diverse in sources and moods. Two tunes each come from the pens of the Gershwins, Duke Ellington, and the team of Comden, Green and Styne, with the rest from such heralded composers as Rogers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Lowe, McHugh and Fields, and Sammy Cahn. Throughout, the pace is relatively slow, from ballad to mid-tempo, and no track reaches five minutes, with most fulfilling their purpose within three or four. Even within these relatively short takes, there’s a lot of room for voice and piano to explore.

The set opens with a gentle but sparkling “Just in Time,” followed by the sweet passion of “Blame It on My Youth. PJ slows “Surrey With the Fringe on Top” to a near ballad tempo, and Ruggieri’s soloing here is as delightful as her vocals. On “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” PJ adds a touch of sass and more twist to her improvisation on the melody, unable to suppress a giggle at the end. How many singers have done “I’ve Grown Accustomed to His Face?” PJ brings a fresh longing, offset beautifully by Ruggieri. A change of pace and rhythm follows as PJ and Ruggieri bring a slightly Latin feel to their swinging rendition of “A Foggy Day.” The sparse arrangement gives this a light—maybe foggy—glow, a more gentle reading than the usual. Following a stellar improvisation from the pianist, PJ creates new twists on the melody on the out chorus--her phrasing here should end any side conversations!

Image Often rendered at a brighter midtempo, PJ slows “How High the Moon” to a stroll without falling into a maudlin pace, while Bianculli seems to mirror her phrasing in his solo interlude. “Summertime” gives Ruggieri a chance to elegantly prove his blues chops, while PJ’s sultry, elongated phrases curve and flow, as if drifting through the Bayou. Shifting to a more sprightly tempo, a short (2 ½ minute) “I’m Beginning to See the Light” finds PJ playing with some risky high notes—and she’s more than up to the challenge. “All of Me” is flirty, even more so as PJ slows it down, breaking up the rhythm and drawing out key words, while Ruggieri’s quirky phrases help push it forward. Here PJ infuses a more pleading quality than the usual presentation of the Marks and Simons classic.

With an upbeat midtempo, PJ flows through the lyrics of “Don’t Blame Me” while Ruggieri keeps a counter rhythm going in his left hand that really mimics an acoustic bass. (Maybe he really has three hands?) On the second chorus, PJ’s phrasing creates a sense of scat without eliminating the lyrics. “Sentimental Journey” is a faster-paced track, yet the lyrics are crystalline and PJ makes every word important. On “Make Someone Happy,” PJ sings over Bianculli’s counter melody, the piano staying behind the vocal just enough to give it a swinging, optimistic lilt.

I’ve been quite partial to “Easy Living” ever since hearing Hugh Ragin’s trumpet rendition. The melody forces leaps that not all vocalists navigate effectively, and PJ succeeds without any brassiness. Again, Ruggieri combines a deft sense of time with elegantly placed phrases and chords. On “Day By Day,” his comping is relatively abstract, and the midtempo swing is largely drawn from PJ’s phrasing. “Am I Blue” ends the set on a sultry, and indeed, blue note.

Intimate may not find its way to the top of the jazz radio charts and PJ Parker may remain relatively anonymous outside of the small clubs of the east coast. That’s the reality for many artists devoting their careers to an art form that is generally underappreciated. Based on her debut recording, however, PJ Parker rises above the sea of promising vocalists as a true jazz singer who warrants serious attention. Even in New York.

More about PJ Parker as well as CD ordering information is available at www.pjparker.net. Intimate is available from Amazon, CD Baby, CD Now, and I-Tunes. In Princeton, NJ, hear PJ Parker at the Salt Creek Grille June14th and July 15th; http://saltcreekgrille.com/

 



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