She is joined by some of the finest musicians that LA has to offer. Larry Koonse on guitar, Bob Sheppard on flute, and the great Alan Pasqua is on piano and also arranged the pieces on the album. They are joined by Josh Johnson on alto sax, Darek Oles on bass, and Steve Haas on drums along with Stefanie Fife on cello and Aaron Serfaty on percussion.
The album opens with Circus Life. The guitar-bass-drum intro is an understated stroll into Judy’s opening delivery. She sings of the monotony that threatens life and she sing in a monotonous staccato that creates the right impact for what follows. Alan Pasqua’s piano is augmented by his own whistling accompaniment. Cool.
Parisian Heartbreak takes a different turn in its melancholic vocals and the Alan Pasqua melodica over the piano, bass and drum trio. Judy’s vocals are touching, even heart-breaking, in their subtle painfulness. Haas grabs the attention with his rim work and deep tom hits. Something cool about the lower-toned drums in such a heartbreak piece. The ending sustained melodica note is the perfect cap.
Crowded Heart, the title track—indeed all of the tracks on the album—represent the finest compositions by the finest contemporary artists. Judy has said that she wanted to create an album of “Jazz standards for the 21st Century.” Crowded Heart is an excellent example of that aim. The song features exquisite guitar by Koonse and Pasqua’s piano is always wonderful. Judy gives a bit wistful, a bit melancholic, treatment to the great lyrics.
Josh Johnson’s alto sax is a perfect duet partner with Judy’s vocals on Painted on Canvas with the andante rhythms of the piano, bass and drums. The song was written by Gregory Porter, an excellent Jazz-Blues-Gospel artist. Listen to Porter’s album Be Good and see what Pasqua and Judy did with their treatment of the song. You’ll be impressed.
The Fred Hersch song Stars follows. Hersch is certainly a modern standard composer and performer and Judy does him great honor in her rendition of his great work. Seriously, her vocals on his song most assuredly confirms the song’s standing as a soon-to-be-classic. Pasqua’s piano solo is rapturous.
The Last Goodbye (Alan Broadbent, Georgia Mancio) is a beautiful lament that is reminiscent of the wonderful work of Michel Legrand. Bob Sheppard’s alto flute is a sweet treat. Judy knows how to sing a lament without turning it into something maudlin. She has the gift of interpretation that would make any composer proud.
Take My Breath Away follows. It is sweet, it is sultry, it is sexy. Larry Koonse contributes meaningful passages that are as evocative as Judy’s vocals.
Come close and touch my hand
Put your hand right there
Good Lord. Have to admit, I hit replay a few too many times on that one.
Then comes I Took Your Hand, a mesmerizing song of meeting a stranger at a masked ball. The rhythm section comes across with such sway and determination and swing and is quickly accompanied by Johnson’s alto sax. Judy sings of the waltzing in a way that itself waltzes. Brilliant.
It’s Only Smoke is a coolly delivered song from Judy and the artists. She lets the Cliff Goldmacher lyrics speak for themselves in her straight-up approach. Larry Goldings’ music is meaningfully treated by Pasqua, Oles, and Haas. Oles’ bass is subtle but so appropriate. Only in the end so Judy indulge herself with mournful vocalizations. Good stuff.
The Alan Pasqua/Kurt Elling song And We Will Fly wraps up the album. It is introduced by Larry Koonse’s guitar before the trio takes over. Koonse gets more time throughout the song and he makes every contribution count. Judy’s vocals are as soaring as the song itself.
And that’s the thing about Crowded Heart, the compositions and arrangements are stellar and the musicians contribute their very best through not-always-flashy but always intelligent and spot on. Then Judy Wexler adds her stunning vocals on top of the already stunning music. Neither Judy nor the musicians detract from each other but allowing space for the other. The approach is a life-lesson as much as musical philosophy.
In this Judy’s fifth album, she proves to be far more than a great Jazz vocalist, she is a great Jazz archivist. She attempts, and succeeds, at ensconcing ten great songs into the book of modern Jazz standards. The composers should be grateful.
As a listener, I know I am.