Contemporary jazz is mostly made of throwbacks, so Calabria Foti and her new album Prelude to a Kiss shouldn’t be at all surprising. Here’s the basic recipe: one sultry chanteuse, one Great American Songbook and a lush orchestra that’s been guided by such noted arrangers as Johnny Mandel, Roger Kellaway and a few more. You’ve heard this music before–singers like Peggy Lee and Frank Sinatra built their careers on it. There’s still an element of surprise here, mostly because so many contemporary jazz singers are going either small, with trios or quartets, or succumbing to the wow of big band jazz. Prelude to a Kiss stands apart from this crowd, mostly because it is so willing to sound like a Big Event in a very old-fashioned way.
Calabria Foti has a calm, sweet voice that’s more engaging than most, and I don’t intend that as a knock on the whole audiophile “female voice” preferences as much as a confirmation that believing in the words as you sing them is a better strategy. That authenticity is why Foti has a reputation for being a performer who can easily bring a tear to the eyes of her fans. I’m not that sentimental of a listener, so I’m more impressed with Calabria Foti’s generosity when it comes to the notes, of making each one essential and distinctive from the rest. (She’s kind of the David Gilmour of jazz singers.) This is a voice that sticks with you after the album is over, a voice with a weight and seriousness that’s ever so alluring.
Amazingly enough, Calabria Foti has more than one talent–she’s also known as a violinist and she gets a chance to deliver a few solos throughout Prelude to a Kiss. That shouldn’t seem so unusual, but I’m used to seeing jazz singer behind pianos, not holding violins. This adds to the already copious sophistication of Prelude to a Kiss, a multi-talented performer backed by an extraordinary orchestra, with guest appearances from such big names as pianist Kellaway, guitarists Larry Koonse and John Pizzarelli and trombonist Bob McChesney, who also serves as producer.
Ultimately, it comes down to this: Calabria Foti is excellent company. Her voice is lovely and warm, and she approaches this music with such intelligence that you’ll no longer be hearing familiar old tunes, one after another. You’ll be listening to a storyteller, and if you can suspend belief you’ll believe those stories are hers.