I didn’t quite gel with Sue Maskaleris (website) and her new album Love Is the Key on first listen. This is a concept album that borrows heavily from musical theater structures and storytelling tropes, and her approach the libretto seems influenced by Sondheim’s often chaotic “I’m gonna tell the entire story through the lyrics” school of songwriting. I was asked by a friend to take a second listen, however, and that’s so often the secret to enjoying so many contemporary jazz albums–listening in a different mood and hearing something again, but for the first time. It’s a recurring theme in my reviews, which is why I listen to everything at least twice.
Why did I change my mind about Sue Maskaleris? First, the sheer ambition she shows in the execution of this project is quite impressive–she composes and arranges the music, writes her own lyrics, sings and plays piano. That’s not enough to make me change my mind, but it does show me that she’s driven by something deep, something you hear more in her piano than in her voice. She does have a lovely and sunny voice, tinged with optimism, and perhaps the carefree attitude she wears when she’s singing is why I didn’t stop and listen more carefully the first time.
Wait. Is this actually Brazilian jazz? Did I notice that on the first listen? Probably not–it’s subtle but it’s there. Once in a while, she sings in Portuguese and the warmth of her voice increases.
Her piano playing, from an absolute jazz standard, is impeccable–she’s economical and supportive to her core quartet (guitarist Wesley Amorim, bassist Leo Traversa and drummer Samuel Martinelli), but every so often she reveals a phrase that makes you stop in your tracks just to witness its beauty. Sue Maskaleris also enlists the help of many guest stars, everyone from Janis Siegel to Darmon Meader to Sara Caswell, and that gives Love Is the Key the feeling of an old-fashioned revue. Perhaps that’s why I called this a concept album, which I don’t think it really is.
Love Is the Key is billed as just ten more original songs from Sue Maskaleris, notable because she’s wearing so many hats and doing it all so well. But I’m curious about my reaction to its solid structure, one that implies a single story is being told in a number of different ways. It’s not a libretto, nor a concept album, nor anything but a human with specific ideas and feeling from a certain point in time and space. She knows how to establish a rhythm between songs, of exposition and denouement. That’s what I realized on the second listen, and that’s why Sue Maskaleris stands out from the crowd.