Sandy Foster, Caramelize

Still trying to write jazz numbers in the manner of the old standards? Let’s go for a walk through Sandy Foster’s Caramelize. Where can you be offered a combination of clever lyrics and mellow instrumentation, without looking like a chump copping to secondhand nostalgia filtered through the hangover brought on by the cocktails-and-swing-dancing fad of the ’90s? Caramelize gives you what you need. Blind Fish tries to make the leap back to Harold Arlen’s procedure of stringing an extended metaphor across a song whose verbal repetitions and deceptively simple harmonies evoke the blues. Stay awhile, listening to the words and floating along with the instrumental passage, and you will have to admit that Foster takes you close to giving you what you need, but doesn’t quite deliver. To be two kinds of jazz at once, a music of improvising instrumentalists and of emoting, interpreting vocalists, is a challenge in a world where jazz is no longer entwined with commercial popular music. Virtuoso improvisation is about the only way the New makes it into current jazz music. Vocalists don’t have an army of lyricists turning out songs for musicals or for a popular music market that appreciates jazzy music, so they have to transform pop tunes into something that sounds like music produced by canonical vocalists. (Foster employs this strategy on her cover of one of Fairport Convention’s most haunting songs, Who Knows Where the Time Goes?). Or they have to write their own tunes. In times past, an improviser could play off the listener’s memory of a song’s lyrical content or a familiar melody line, while a singer could embed the lyrics in vocal textures inspired by the inventions of the instrumentalists. My Romance, bye-bye Blackbird and That’s All show Foster and her band’s ability to practice an older mode of jazz-making, to take standards in original directions without dissolving song structure in showy noodling. Foster’s own compositions are decent attempts to provide lyrical content with musical invention but don’t seem to inspire the musicians to heights of great invention. (Erik Weissengruber)