Judy Wexler, Judy Wexler. Where do I know that name? Turns out we’ve been friends on Facebook for quite a long time, a mutual friend of both audiophiles, audio reviewers and other musicians/performers, people most of you know, too. What’s interesting is that her new album, Crowded Heart, was sent to me by a third party, someone who thought I needed to hear this Judy Wexler person, this jazz singer. It’s a small world sometimes. That usually means one thing, of getting that vague feeling of both trepidation and forced optimism when you witness the talent of someone you know, sort of anyway, and having to offer something positive no matter what. From the first song, “Circus Life,” I felt a sense of relief. Judy Wexler’s new album is good, in other words, and I ain’t just saying that.
Judy Wexler’s concept for Crowded Heart is straightforward. She wanted to “find timeless modern jazz compositions written by contemporary songwriters.” That’s almost impossible in the world of music, to see the future and determine which song will be evergreen, but I get her notion that these songs should be catchy and memorable from a pop standpoint and yet performed by a stunning jazz ensemble with serious chops to get respect in those circles. The secret here is jazz pianist and arranger Alan Pasqua, who also co-produced with Wexler. The process of choosing the right songs for this album took over a year. You might see some familiar names in the writing credits–Fred Hersch, Alan Broadbent, Larry Klein–but these are the types of songs that need more exposure. At least Judy Wexler thinks so, and this is her album.
That’s an intriguing theme for the album, sure, but what makes the execution so effective? I detect a pop sensibility in most of these songs, a feeling that Judy Wexler tightens the song structure because she likes the crossover approach. There’s no jazz formalities here, just a strong conviction that some of these songs might just have a life of their own if given the chance. As a result, this isn’t be-bop and there are no extended solos from the band even though there’s an incredible surplus of talent from people like Larry Koonse, Bob Sheppard, Steve Hass, Darek Oles, Josh Johnson, Stefanie Fife and Aaron Serfaty
Since this is a vocal album, I should probably discuss Judy Wexler’s voice. Jazz critic Dan Bilawsky wrote, “Judy Wexler is more than a mere singer of songs. She’s an actress, mood painter, song archaeologist and vocalist par excellence.” Her voice is lovely and pure, but there’s something tactile going on with the way she burrows deep to discover what emotions are really being considered in the lyrics. That alone elevates her from a mere singer with a beautiful voice to someone who really wants to create the template for everyone else who comes afterward and sings these classics of the future, classics that were first–and hopefully–made famous by her.