“All the world’s a stage.” The blending of jazz and William Shakespeare’s prose seems both logical and a little daft, especially when you think of all those cool jazz tropes that are based on a looseness, a casual demeanor that stands out like a polar opposite to Shakespeare’s formal and ornate phrasings. Singer Deborah Shulman, who is based out of Los Angeles, has been thinking about The Shakespeare Project for over 30 years–ever since she appeared as a cast member of a theatrical production called “Word Songs.” That play featured songs from Cleo Laine and John Dankworth‘s 1964 album Shakespeare and All That Jazz, so you can see there is a precedent for melding the two worlds. But that does not detract from the shear audacity and originality of Shulman’s new CD.
Deborah Shulman teamed up with pianist Jeff Colella to make The Shakespeare Project a reality, and there is a lively chemistry between the two on this recording that makes this idea work. Shulman has that aforementioned looseness, a swinging approach to those arcane lyrics that brings them to life in the same manner as a skilled thespian. Shulman and Colella work in tandem, never leaving each other’s side, and that partnership maintains the strengths of Shakespeare’s enduring themes.
Colella pushes the idea further with even more swing and more swagger. He can certainly be lyrical when he wants–his soft and sensitive side accentuates the meaning behind lines such as “Thou art more lovely and more temperate.” But it’s also surprising when adds a little boogie woogie with his ideas, a little anachronistic spirit that acts like a series of exclamation marks.
Shulman’s voice is more than apt for this challenge. She possesses that perfect balance of loveliness and experience that is needed to add gravitas to Shakespeare’s lofty ideals–a young woman’s voice might seem a little overwhelmed in the same space. Shulman’s vocals in The Shakespeare Project suggest something incredibly important, that she is a person who has read, studied and understood the work of Shakespeare, and that she’s the best person for the role right now. (Cleo Laine is still around, of course, at age 91.) That’s what makes this album flow so easily–like a great theatrical production with superb acting, this Shakespeare is readily absorbed by even the most modern of audiences. From a jazz viewpoint, it’s also performed with the same ease, the same sense of everything fitting together far more seamlessly than expected.