By Jeff Cebulski
Libby York has developed a gradually progressive following over a nearly 25-year career, with five albums spaced through that time, each with an impressive supporting cast that demonstrates her popularity among seasoned players. Among them are Bobby Schiff, Warren Vache, Renee Rosnes, Frank Wess, Russell Malone, Howard Alden, and Billy Drummond. Real jazz fans will recognize the quality of association.
What’s the appeal? While York is among the hundreds of female singers who croon American standards to patrons of the fine art, her style is perhaps the main distinction. For me, ever since the passing of the great Shirley Horn, Libby York has provided a desired breathless delivery that seduces attention. On her latest album Dreamland, I was entranced by the Horn-like phrasing of (the also breathless) Peggy Lee’s “Cloudy Morning,” the way York whispers “the tops of buildings…reappear” with the requisite hesitant astonishment. As much as I wish Shirley were still around, I am thrilled that someone has filled the gap in such an appealing way.
Another appealing factor in this new collection is York’s choices, songs that are not immediate classics but have been sung by some of our greatest singers like Lee, Abbey Lincoln, June Christy, and Rosemary Clooney.
Supporting York on Dreamland are, as usual, stellar musicians: Randy Napoleon on guitar, Rodney Whitaker on bass, and the necessarily understated Keith Hall on drums. Kudos especially go to Napoleon, whose guitar adorns York’s singing much like Pres’s sax did with Billie. Whitaker is a welcome accompanist whose rich tone provides an almost argued counterpoint. While the guitar and bass dominate, when called on Hall does his job, never getting in the way, even in his cool but bawdy percussive support of a smoky “An Occasional Man.”
What songs stand out? That’s hard to say, given York’s consistency and her ability to mold it to whatever motif is represented. Jobim’s “This Happy Madness” rides a soft Bossa wave to express the thrill of rediscovering love, embellished by Napoleon’s lovely stringing; in Clooney’s “Still on the Road,” one can feel the heaviness of a traveling career; Lincoln’s “Throw It Away” gets the requisite blues treatment with a sharp response by the band; Christy’s “Something Cool,” is heightened by York’s conversational tone that borrows, nearly perfectly, from Horn’s late-night lonely desire.
Basically, for all its intimacy, nothing boring occurs at all. Recurring listens only accentuate the general excellence.
Libby York is the kind of singer one would easily plan a nightclub trip to hear. And Chicago jazz singer fans will be able to partake of York’s wonderful contributions in two ways. On April 17 she’ll be presenting a live performance on WDCB, followed by a concert at Winter’s Jazz Club, a perfect venue for her, on April 20. If you can’t make it, Dreamland will just have to do, not a bad alternative at all.
Libby York, Dreamland (OA2 Records, 2023).
Libby York - vocals
Randy Napoleon - guitar
Rodney Whitaker - bass
Keith Hall - drums (5,10,12)
About Jeff Cebulski
Jeff Cebulski, who lives in Chicago, is a retired English educator (both secondary and collegiate) and longtime jazz aficionado. His career in jazz includes radio programs at two stations in southeast Wisconsin, an online show on Kennesaw State’s (GA) Owl Radio from 2007 until 2015, and review/feature writing for Chicago Jazz Magazine since 2016, including his column "Jazz With Mr. C". He has interviewed many jazz artists, including Joshua Redman, Charles Lloyd, Dave Holland, John Beasley, and Chris Brubeck, as well as several Chicago-based players. Jeff is a member of the Jazz Journalists Association. Contact Jeff at firstname.lastname@example.org