If Denise Mangiardi‘s Brown Book comes off as far more ambitious than the average release from a jazz singer, that’s because Mangiardi is far more than just a singer. She’s a composer, arranger and musician, and she’s been doing this for many years–Brown Book, in fact, is her seventh album. Instead of using a small jazz ensemble or even a big band, Denise Mangiardi employs the Slovak National Symphony Orchestra that, like Calabria Foti, takes you back to the ’50s and ’60s when people like Nelson Riddle and Henry Mancini were the rock stars of their day.
Lately I’ve listened to quite a few jazz performers who try to do it all, just like Denise Mangiardi. They might have a gorgeous voice, classically jazz in all the right ways, and they might even play an instrument like a virtuoso. (Mangiardi plays piano and guitar, but on Brown Book she delegates those duties to Mark Soskin and Brian Seeger, respectively.) The arrangements might be top notch and the melodies might be memorable, but they always fall short when it comes to one thing–lyrics. Many times I can recall pulling a contemporary jazz CD out of the player because I couldn’t believe they rhymed one word with another or took one more awkward swipe at an overused love song cliche.
Jazz lyrics are usually simple and focus on romantic notions, but the Great American Songbook is great because of the lyrics. Denise Mangiardi offers smart and simple lyrics that tell a complex story. That’s the focus here, Mangiardi telling us her stories and experiences in a way no one else can–her original compositions are extremely personal and unique. (Thelonious Monk‘s “My Beauty” is the only cover here.) In addition, Brown Book has more than one gear–sure, there’s the big jazz orchestra thing, and the album even opens and closes with two string instrumentals, but you’ll also hear some Latin rhythms, some folk influences and maybe even an electric guitar or two.
What’s surprising about Brown Book, however, is the voice of Denise Mangiardi. She looks so serious on the cover, and the whole project is so big, that I halfway imagined her to have this big, commanding voice that would fill the studio and drown out that big orchestra. Instead, her voice is sweet and youthful and sensitive. With everything else going on, it’s amazing that the center and balance of this project is right there, in her voice, outshining a lot of shiny objects in the room by merely being genuine. This is the first time I’ve heard of Denise Mangiardi, and I’m sure I’ll be scolded by her fans for not discovering her until now, but Brown Book is truly impressive.