When you talk about contemporary jazz in the United States, you’ll probably be talking about New York City at some point. No matter where you’re from, you’re probably headed there to pay your dues and hopefully get some time on stage with the greats. It’s a music that rises from streets and moves through the alleys and inspires performers from all over the world. Judy Wexler, however, always reminds me of the Los Angeles jazz scene, which is very different from New York–especially on her new album Back to the Garden.
I’ve heard these LA albums from time to time, from artists such as Tierney Sutton and Mark Winkler and maybe even Lyn Stanley in a less specific way, and they’re tinged with this LA sort of style that could be capriciously described as cinematic. I think “high production values” is a more accurate path toward a satisfying descriptor. In New York City, you find some people to play with, people you’ve never met before, and if there’s chemistry you ask them to come around the next time. In Los Angeles, someone has an idea and then phone calls are made and the best people are hired. Judy Wexler certainly hired the best people for her new album, Back to the Garden, where she “reimagines 1960s songs of love, hope and change.”
If you’re grounded in something as creatively gritty as the NYC jazz scene, you might not be interested in this album. But Judy Wexler has come up with something a little deeper than a set list for a variety show with a Summer of Love theme. First, as you might recall, some of the pop songs of the ’60s were master classes in harmonic structure and melodies destined to be earworms. Back to the Garden features songs by Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, Stephen Stills, Judy Collins, Carole King and Sandy Denny, which is reason enough to explore, but Wexler’s voice this time around is calm and wise and fortified by the passage of time. Her work here is some of her best, and she brings something quite different to each of these arrangements.
Judy Wexler is the focus here, but let’s take a moment to acknowledge a star-studded band that includes pianist Jeff Colella, guitarist Larry Koonse, bassist Gabe Davis and drummer Steve Hass, with guest turns from Hendrik Meurkens, Sara Caswell and more. Yes, this is a big budget affair, and yet everyone plays with commitment and emotion–as if they were all there, standing next to Wexler and remembering what was and what’s coming around one more time.