As a music aficionado, I’ve made many friends over the years who are exceptionally accomplished performers. And while I’m somewhat envious – hey, I’ve spent decades working on my rudimentary skill set of singing and playing guitar – I really enjoy pulling out their recordings and giving them a listen.
At a recent networking event, I took quick note of that night’s entertainment: a jazz singer with the voice of the proverbial nightingale. (One of her specialties happens to be the standard “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square.”) It turned out that I’d met her several years earlier, after she recorded a well-crafted compact disc called “Bluebird Fly.”
And so I was reacquainted with the eminently talented and personable Jessica Lee, who just happens to complement her musical abilities with a distinctive knack for entrepreneurship. She’s in her 10th year of hosting a successful and innovative networking group that combines music with the business of business.
I have a long-standing habit of listening to jazz on Sunday mornings, and today I put on “Bluebird Fly.” Actually, jazz is just part of the picture: Jessica mixes it up with ballads, blues and a touch of good ol’ rock and roll to present a comprehensive portrait of the artist as a young woman.
You know you’re going to enjoy the album when it starts with a swinging version of the classic “Why Don’t You Do Right.” Jessica channels the late chanteuse Peggy Lee in presenting the familiar tale of a woman who craves cash, with stellar backing by Danny Shields and Chris Hemingway trading licks on guitar and sax, respectively.
Jessica and company switch gears for Brenda Russell’s “Get Here,” with John D’Amico, who does all the arrangements on “Bluebird Fly,” providing tasteful accompaniment on piano. The vocals put Jessica on display as an empathetic balladeer, imploring her man to “just get here if you can.”
When she sings the blues, Jessica’s precise phrasing comes to the forefront, as evidenced by “Hear Me Talkin’ to Ya” as she’s able to emulate song composer Louis Armstrong’s distinctive style. Shields again provides able backing, playing an extended solo that would make many a Texas bluesman proud.
“Right Place Right Now” and “I Just Wanna Love Somebody” return Jessica to ballad mode. On the latter, written the year the album was recorded by James Slater and Karyn Rochelle, Miss Lee makes the most of her range as a vocalist, hitting high notes during the title refrain in a seemingly effortless manner.
“Weary Blues” contains an interesting segment in which Jessica and John emulate a Victrola-era recording (without the clicks, pops and scratches) to emphasize the song’s ragtime vintage. Again, she proves herself worthy of following the path established by Satchmo and other jazz greats.
The bluesy ballad “Damn Your Eyes,” featuring co-executive producer Roy Ruzika on rhythm guitar, and the tender “Lover Man” precede some forays into the rock milieu.
“Son of a Preacher Man” is given a relaxed treatment compared with the popular version by the late Dusty Springfield, but Jessica’s smooth delivery is just as effective in conveying the message of female desire. Similarly, “My Baby Left Me” is more leisurely paced than what Elvis, Scotty and Bill recorded, and Andy Gabig’s harmonica serves as a pleasant complement to Jessica’s voice.
In between those two songs is the album’s longest track and perhaps its high point, a cover of Sade’s “Jezebel.” Relatively sparse accompaniment by D’Amico and rhythm section Virgil Waters (bass) and Lenny Rogers (drums) allows Jessica to demonstrate fully what she brings to the table as a vocalist.
Closing “Bluebird Fly” is the traditional “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” a duet with Jessica keeping in harmony with John’s piano playing.
Jessica produced the album with Hollis Greathouse, who plays bass on several tracks, and engineer Jay Dudt. Kudos to them for an eminently listenable and enjoyable product, and to executive producers Roy and Joan Ruzika for making it all possible. “Bluebird Fly” is a fine testament to the talents of a vocalist who deserves nothing but accolades.
BTW, here are some videos of Jessica and friends performing in January: