With her newest CD, the increasingly intriguing and commanding Lauren White turns in a solid series of performances. While many of the songs chosen might bring up movie memories for many, this is no by-the-numbers set of just usual suspects done the usual way. Out of the Past: Jazz & Noir looks to the genre of film noir, but White brings light to the dark with an assured and blithe presence and a voice that doesn’t linger in the languid zone only, or try to be a latter-day femme fatale. The enterprise feels satisfyingly contemporary and fresh without defeating the purpose of revisiting a style by turning it on its head to be maniacally modern.
Cooler heads prevail, and few jazz minds are cooler than singer-songwriter-producer Mark Winkler, fellow West Coast jazz person and old soul. His production and the savvy arrangements by Kathryn Bostic are illuminating, adult, and thoughtful.
Familiar songs here may have more fame on their own rather than as merely tied to films. For example, “He’s Funny That Way” (originally “She’s Funny That Way,” with composer Richard Whiting having a rare fling at lyric writing in this number inspired by his feelings for his wife early in their relationship) is well established as a classic ode to a devoted partner. But devotees of dark movie tales will associate it from The Postman Always Rings Twice. If it just rings a bell as a stand-alone song, maybe in the recorded version by the writer’s daughter, vocalist Margaret Whiting, or Sinatra, or someone else, Lauren White’s version navigating the melody credited to Charles Daniels and the lyric avoiding some of the self-deprecating lines is lovely. “I’m Gonna Go Fishing,” one of the more vibrant pieces in a necessarily laidback, mystique-drenched moody set, lives on as association with its singer-lyricist Peggy lee, composer Duke Ellington and his great band, and the movie it was heard in, Anatomy of a Murder. And Miss White proves with her own version, which owes little to the earlier performers, that it’s still very much worth its sass and drive.
Sultry vocal sounds are primo here, with atmosphere drenched in a tightrope walk of uncertainty or tension, as befits the film noir genre. Nothing is cute or pat. The muted trumpet of Andrew Carney is especially choice and carries much weight in establishing and expanding the tones. Strings and a brass ensemble highlight other aural landscapes deftly, with pianist Michael Forman and bassist Trey Henry the admirable and dynamic anchors.
Movies and jazz are front and center, but musical theatre fans will find intriguing reasons to lend an ear, too. Theatre writers Jule Styne and Leo Robin are represented with something far afield from their collaboration Gentlemen Prefer Blondes—it’s a little-known and quirky, hip item called “You Kill Me,” included in a film called Macao. The musical for which Mark Winkler wrote lyrics with a variety of collaborators, Play It Cool makes a welcome and effective appearance with the score’s 1950s era-establishing “When All the Lights in the Sign Worked” (melody: Joe Pasquale), with Lauren taking her time setting up atmosphere and luxuriating in it. Her voice is one that is a pleasure to hear, not at all show-offy, free of tricks, and this cut and others give her a chance to prove she has acting chops, too.
While some jazz-oriented vocalists sacrifice lyric meaning and “story of the song” for melodic invention and swoops and embellishments, the lyrics are well served on this CD, especially on the other theater song, from a Schwartz & Dietz revue called Inside USA. It’s “Haunted Heart,” a sorrowful ballad with elegance and intensity that would stymie many a lesser singer or invite melodrama that could sink it. Here, White and Winkler opt for a more bare bones approach. The numerous musicians heard on the other tracks sit this one out and arranger Bostic takes the keyboard for a time-stands-still approach that is cerebral and yet strikingly emotional. I look forward to more of Lauren White’s work and her next experiment in genres.