Here’s the thing about reviewing all this contemporary jazz, specifically when it comes to singers and their accompaniment. I find it a rare occurrence when the vocals match the music. I’m not talking about quality, I’m talking about a subjective opinion, the way I respond to both together. I always like one more than the other. That’s why a contemporary jazz album like Jazz Words from pianist Steve Million is so special–I can ping-pong back and forth between these two halves of the music and still find plenty to enjoy.
Jazz Words is the first of his seven albums Steve Million that features all original compositions. “He has a strong affinity for poetry,” it says in the liner notes, and that suggests he loves the interplay between words and music. Yes, it’s remarkable in this day and age for a composer to handle both with such skill and grace, but the crowning achievement here is two-fold: these are strong, personal lyrics that have deep meaning for Steve Million (surviving cancer, 9/11, his love for his daughter), and he is able to deliver these heart-felt messages through a truly stunning vocalist named Sarah Marie Young.
I’ll admit it–even in this day and age I still find myself being seduced once in a while by the charms of the female voice. I’m also notoriously picky and critical about these voices, and it’s rare when I’m completely enchanted like this. It happens, but I’m surprised when it does. Surprise is indeed what I felt during the first listen to Jazz Words…”wow, this band is on fire and the singer can SING!” She’s strong without being brash, distinct without being quirky, and sweet without being superficial about it. I love it when I feel that singers are singing to me and no one else. Young has this all figured out, and Steve Million and his lush piano is her muse.
You will uncover another layer of appreciation for Jazz Words when you take a subsequent listen and notice these are, indeed, fine lyrics from Steve Million, more complex and thoughtful than most, and the music has that quality of lost standards. A beautiful voice and a beautiful melody and lyrics that are satisfying–what else is there? Jazz Words already feels like a modern classic, and I hope Steve Million and Sarah Marie Young continue this wonderful partnership.