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Laura Crema brings a fresh approach to jazz standards

Laura Crema's strong, supple voice, with a huskiness in her lower registers added extra depth and interest to the show ©Brett Delmage, 2015

Laura Crema
NAC Presents
National Arts Centre Fourth Stage
Saturday, May 30, 2015

View photos of this performance

There have been times when I've become Great American Songbooked-out. No more Broadway show tunes. No more songs that are indelibly associated with Billie or Peggy or Lena or Blossom. No more George Gershwin or Harold Arlen.

It's not that these jazz standards aren't extremely well-written – both lyrics and melody. But I've heard them sung in much the same way too many times.

This is an issue for any singer who includes more than a few standards in a show. Recognizability gives you an extra link to the audience, but it can also make you blend into a crowd of similar singers – unless you make an individual connection to a song.

So we come to Vancouver jazz vocalist Laura Crema, who made her National Arts Centre debut as part of the NAC Presents series on May 30. Crema's four solo albums have almost exclusively featured jazz standards; her latest, Fotografia [2013], includes seven standards, but also two songs by Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim and two originals.

For the NAC show, she interspersed the jazz standards with three Jobim numbers, two songs by John Lennon and by Paul McCartney (“new standards”), and a few originals. And what really appealed to me is that she and her musicians took a fresh approach to the music.

For example, her opening number, Rodgers' and Hammerstein's “It Might as Well be Spring”, has been recorded by everyone from Frank Sinatra to Nina Simone. But Crema and her band didn't just treat it as a wistful ballad.

Instead, the uncertainty in the lyrics – “I'm as restless as a willow in a windstorm / I'm as jumpy as a puppet on a string” – was echoed by a similar uncertainty in the instrumentals and vocals. There was a vibrating, unresolved energy in the piano introduction and even more so as the guitar joined in, at times trembling and playing contrasting riffs. And, instead of letting the melody simply roll out, Crema sang it haltingly, holding notes and emphasizing the song's conflicting feelings.

It was an unexpected and interesting opening. I would have preferred to have it resolve more clearly and happily at the end – just as the lyrics do with “But I feel so gay in a melancholy way / That it might as well be spring” – but I was glad to hear a new thought on a well-known song.

On stage with Crema were three well-known jazz musicians: guitarist Bill Coon and bassist Paul Rushka from Vancouver, and pianist Dave Restivo from Toronto, all of whom had played on Fotografia. Coon said later that he had performed with Crema for 8 or 9 years; there was a comfortable vibe on stage and an easy, flowing interaction among all four musicians.

The mood brightened for the next number, “Brigas Nunca Mais”. It's a Jobim number I hadn't heard before, which Crema had included on Fotografia. She sang it assuredly in Portuguese, and the infectious rhythm and happy feel made the song a hit with the audience.

Crema has a strong, supple voice, with a huskiness in her lower registers adding extra depth and interest. She also has excellent diction, which she particularly showed off in a Cole Porter number, “At Long Last Love”. Every line of the song's witty lyrics was given proper appreciation, and the whole emphasized by Restivo's emphatic piano. Coon shone in a swinging guitar solo, and judging from the applause, the audience sounded as though they were having as good a time as the musicians.

Other highlights of the first set included Freddie Hubbard's “Up Jumped Spring”, with an emphatically accented guitar solo and a heartfelt piano interlude; and a country-influenced rendition of “Beautiful Boy” by John Lennon, sung simply and lovingly in dedication to Crema's young son, underlined by sparkling piano and glistening guitar.

In the second set, Crema performed a song for her daughter as well: “Seraphina”, co-written with Vancouver pianist Sharon Minemoto. It was a lovely ballad, presented with unfeigned warmth. The shimmering intertwined piano/guitar accompaniment and the bowed bass at the end nicely underlaid her vocals.

It was one of three originals Crema presented in that set, all of which were highlights of the show. She opened with “Summit”, co-written with Coon, which featured strictly wordless vocals, their sweetness and melancholy contrasting with Restivo's piano, which was first slow and resonant, then fast and brilliant. It was an arresting song which reminded me of pieces by Norma Winstone, and well-presented.

“Love be Kind”, co-written with Minemoto, was an enjoyable, upbeat number with a bit of a samba beat. The lyrics linked back to the classic imagery of Tin Pan Alley, but were well-crafted: the rhymes worked and the music and words snapped together nicely. Crema upped the energy with fluid scatting, and Coon followed with a similarly fluid solo.

Probably the most unexpected song of the night was the closing number: “Blue Shadows (On the Trail)”. Originally from a Disney movie, it was a hit for cowboy singer Roy Rogers in 1948. While the musicians gave it an interesting treatment, with an evocative bass solo from Rushka featuring strong individual notes and a percussive rendition of the melody, I found it a forgettable tune and a weak ending to the show.

The encore, delivered after strong and extended applause from the audience, was a better closer. “Bye Bye Blackbird” allowed everyone on stage to stretch out and express the joy in the song's words and melody, in a bright, accented rendition with a touch of stride piano.

Crema has a real feel for the style of the Great American Songbook – and a good ear for material, pacing, and in particular excellent musicians to partner with. I had initially been interested in this show because of previously enjoying shows with Coon, Restivo, and Rushka, and they didn't disappoint at this concert, either. It was a fine collaboration.

What particularly impressed me, though, were the songs Crema co-wrote, each of which was different and memorable. I hope she will continue to set herself apart with her own compositions, as well as her supple renditions of jazz standards.

    – Alayne McGregor

Set 1

  • It Might as Well be Spring/ Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein
  • Brigas Nunca Mais (I Don't Want to Fight Anymore)/ Antonio Carlos Jobim
  • Blackbird/ Paul McCartney
  • Beautiful Boy/ John Lennon
  • At Long Last Love/ Cole Porter
  • Up Jumped Spring/ Freddie Hubbard (lyrics by Abbey Lincoln)
  • Águas de Março (The Waters of March)/ Antonio Carlos Jobim
  • Just in Time/ Jule Styne and Betty Comden & Adolph Green

Set 2

  • Summit/ Laura Crema and Bill Coon
  • Seraphina/ Laura Crema and Sharon Minemoto
  • Love be Kind/ Laura Crema and Sharon Minemoto
  • Só Danço Samba (I Only Dance Samba)/ Antonio Carlos Jobim
  • Blue Shadows (On the Trail) (from the Disney movie, Melody Maker)

  • Encore: Bye Bye Blackbird/ Ray Henderson and Mort Dixon

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All photos ©Brett Delmage, 2015