Stevie Holland’s recent release, Life Goes On (June 30th), is her first return to a studio album after her one-woman Off-Broadway show, Love, Linda: The Life Of Mrs. Cole Porter. We’re glad she jumped back into the studio. While the album contains original songs by Holland, it also contains classics, such as “Skylark,” a song from what I’ll call The Small American Songbook, and “Not While I’m Around” from Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeny Todd. There are two things you notice immediately upon listening to Holland’s album: her storyteller’s rhythm and her beautiful tone. It’s as if you’re listening to a Cate Blanchett voiceover that morphs into a silky jazz voice hitting tones that pierce your heart. While Holland isn’t always technically perfect (her voice wavers a couple times throughout the album) she has beautiful phrasing, a Broadway singer’s enunciation, and a tone that is rarely achieved.
“Skylark,” of course, is not one of Holland’s original songs. This is a song covered by everyone from Ella Fitzgerald to K. D. Lang, Linda Ronstadt, and Greg Porter. While some may think Holland has chutzpah to take on such a lauded classic, her version brings out both the storyteller and the jazz vocalist that make her so wonderfully unique. The initial timing, pauses, and shaping of the notes are all telltale signs of a Broadway musical singer’s sensibilities, and then it jumps up into full jazz mode. That doesn’t mean she’s left that beautiful tone behind or doesn’t render each word in a crystal-clear fashion, it just means she brings it with full jazz swing.
Stevie Holland sounds a bit more like Barbra Streisand than Ella Fitzgerald (of course, you can’t go wrong either way) on the track, “Out of this World.” While my personal preference is a quicker, jazz-infused version, hers is laden with emotion, beautifully rendered, and clearly conveying its theme of longing and desire to stay together. She takes the opposite approach on “Tea for Two,” producing an upbeat, fun jazz rendition. The band, her voice and the approach all make for a perfect song with a bit of added whimsy when it comes to the additional lyrics.
Another track, “Never,” is a lovely original ballad that praises the tenacity of love: “Never will come the time / Never will be the day / You’ll see me walk away.” The play between songstress and Nicholas Payton’s horn (a fabulous Grammy award winner himself) is perfect, and the backing of drums and piano are spot on. Payton’s control in blending with Stevie Holland’s voice is masterful.
Next, Holland moves on to a lovely, lyrical version of James Taylor’s “Another Grey Morning.” She knows just where to take the notes and the emphasis; the question hangs in the air on “well, what am I to do today / With too much time and so much sorrow?” Holland is ever poised for an answer and never receives one.
From the 1870s-set war-time musical Up in Central Park comes “April Snow.” As you might imagine from the historic setting of an older musical, this is a sentimental ballad, but it plays well to Holland’s voice. She brings the sound up to date with a contemporary jazz club vibe. Speaking of sentiment, “Tomorrow’s Looking Brighter Today” is a sweet little upbeat original tune from the Friedman/Holland team. “99 Miles from LA” is another light ditty that comes from Hal David, with music from Albert Hammond. Hammond’s original version is dated, and she gives it a nice refresh.
Stevie Holland’s timing and emphasis bring out the protective nature of the song, “Not While I’m Around.” Hearing this in the context of the musical Sweeny Todd, one could never imagine Payton’s trumpet interlude, but it surprisingly suits the song. Once again, Payton is able to blend in his trumpet’s sound with Ms. Holland’s singing.
The album wraps up with “Life Goes On,” a song featured on Sérgio Mendes’ Brasil ’88 album (and no, it was released in ’78, Brasil ’88 was a group whose origins started with Brasil ‘66). It is reflective and evokes more than a little melancholy: “The way is hard / For one who feels / The price is twice as high / For one who’s real”…”And life goes on…we’re only here to play a part / Then move along.” This is another song well-suited her voice. The song is beautifully arranged with Jacob Yates’s cello providing a lovely undertone to Ms. Holland’s voice.