Singer Lorraine Feather’s engaging delivery and words combine to present a mesmerizing musical painting … the latest of Feather’s wonderfully inventive productions, featuring songs of life and relationships of every kind … [she] is one of the most daring and creative modern jazz vocalists. –Glenn Daniels, JazzPage
Lorraine Feather is that rare artist who can make time stand still. The Grammy-nominated vocalist and songwriter has managed to juggle compelling storytelling, beautifully veiled lyrics, and melodically captivating music — in excruciating measure — for a deeply personal record of all her wondrous, fragile, and stirring “Attachments.” So irresistible, listeners will drop everything to find themselves poring over the liner notes and the lyric sheets, leaning toward the music coming out of their machines. Forget the laundry, the New Year’s Eve plans (me), food or drink, the constant rush of one holiday season into the next.
Feather’s eighth solo jazz album since 2000 — released August 13, 2013 on Jazzed Media and recently nominated for a Grammy — “Attachments” recounts short stories about the artist’s life and loves in the style of the best there ever was, O.Henry. Her collection tends to stay in minor keys, “happiness is not my cup of tea,” sad, wistful tones, with that ghostly vocal personage which releases those 12 tales in streams (“The Veil,” “Anna Lee”) and bursts (“159,” “I Love You Guys”), but never in a gush.
Feather’s so good at immediately capturing the warm essence of her characters in her vocal narrative — both lyrically and melodically — without revealing too much that she could very well be the O.Henry of jazz. At the end of almost every song, sometimes in the midst of the dramatic swirls, she punches you in the gut with an emotional twist.
She does this so well in the first real song about her mother, “The Veil,” a song she felt she couldn’t do. But at the urging of a friend over summer lunch, Feather tried. It’s one of the most beautifully heartbreaking but emotionally visceral, lovingly real musical portraits one could ever do. The tenderness in the piano and in the care of Feather’s voice despite having to sing the often hardened, angrily removed lyrics (“I know that I seemed rigid | And possibly unfeeling… I’m sorry I was angry. I know how hard it hit you,… I wrote a lengthy letter, With vehement instructions”)… all serve to demonstrate the love the singer has for her mother and show why. Every soft, delicate note uttered through Feather’s and pianist Shelly Berg’s (co-writer) touch belies the matter-of-fact, slightly self-loathing lyrical narrative.
But Feather slips at just the right times, in how she rises and falls with certain meaningful words, “The nurse was gentle” — pause — “when she said, ‘Your mother…,’” meaning, please be gentle, her mother is a gentle soul suffering needlessly. As a singer who leaves nothing to chance, Feather’s own voice threatens to crack later on in the song as she tries to get the rest of the story out, hinting at a frailty of health, perhaps a nursing home, perhaps Alzheimer’s (“When you had disappeared around a corner, And I couldn’t bring you back”).
The juxtaposition of her mother’s losses and the gentle nurse, with watching “a crazy lady roaming through the restaurant, Becoming ever harder to ignore” and the “waitresses all running interference” is textbook O.Henry, showing the situation through a mirror without explicitly giving the plot away.
When Feather barely holds herself together as she vocally touches “The veil” in concert with the breathless anticipation of the piano notes — reflective of her gentle, beautiful mother — listeners will feel, more than think, of their own mothers, and then they will cry, reaching for the phone.
Lorraine Feather does this on every song, whether it’s about that intangible connection we have to certain people, whether we know them well or in passing (“A Little Like This”), or going through a mental Rolodex of past affairs, flings, and serious relationships (“Attachments”).
“Anna Lee” was written for a dear friend of Feather’s, drawing a tender, but fragile likeness (the name and a few details have been altered). Based on an unrecorded composition by pianist/arranger Russell Ferrante and Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Prayer To Persephone,” the song is another triumph in lyrical and musical portraiture made especially poignant with violinist Charlie Bisharat.
The O.Henry short story arrives right on cue in the last stanza, after it is hinted that Feather learns of the death of her friend and former New York City roommate Anna Lee (“An old man’s voice asked, ‘Were you a friend of Anna Lee?’”), after “Five years had passed” and they’d “fallen out of touch.” Instead of wailing, Feather puts all of her love and devotion in the quiet short story twist: “Today when I was searching for | Some papers in an ancient drawer, I found an envelope from you, Addressed in the curious hand I knew… I read your note, And felt my breath catch in my throat. It said I mustn’t fear the game. It ended, ‘I love you,’ with my name.” In her voice, which does crack trying to get the rest of the story out, lay the spirit of her dear friend Anna Lee, and the sense of profound loss in those three words which should give her such comfort.
The rhythm of Feather’s exquisitely rendered, deeply thoughtful songs tends to rise and fall naturally. It is what Feather does between the movements, that tells the true story.
“True” is perhaps one of the best examples. Feather and pianist Dave Grusin were rehearsing “I Thought You Did,” when he started playing Bach. He liked the idea of Feather joining in with her own lyrics to “Air On The G String,” akin to that splendid wedding opener, “Ode To Joy.” It didn’t take Feather long to write half of the lyrics for Grusin to hear, laid over his elegant arrangement. The classical ballad flows over the singer and her band (Grusin and Bisharat) in lovely waves with that familiar, vintage wistfulness of hers. “True’s” movements overlap in ballet form, one romantic wave after another. And her voice completely transforms into a violin section.
With a piano and her sotto voice, Feather tells the perfect short love story in, “We Have The Stars.” She sings the story as one who experienced many lifetimes of lost love, as her voice trembles from youth to age and back again in remembrances, low and shaky to impossibly high and reaching for the skies. How she applies the poetically astute lyrics — a surprise around every corner — to the music’s highs and lows is nothing short of enchanting. “The day that you fall in love, you learn you are not the same. Fearless and strong, then suddenly weak, whenever he speaks your name.” “How quickly we fall in love. How surely we come to change. Simply struck dumb at finding by chance a beauty so glorious and strange. And maybe it’s not quite real. Or maybe it ends too soon. But as someone once said, ‘Don’t ask for the moon, when we already have the stars.’”
Amidst the wistful, romantic waves are about three breaks in mood and character: “159,” “I Love You Guys,” and “Smitten With You,” a dog song.
“159” is a whirling dervish of hip, Steely Dan/Manhattan Transfer incantation and Motown references snap-crackle-popping through a brazen time period in 3:46: “Gabrielle is gabbin’ on the rotary phone, Teddy’s wailing on the table bad to the bone, snatches off a coffeecake meant to be mine, doesn’t miss a beat at 159.” The mood lifts here, as the song focuses on an everyday American family kicking it in the kitchen. “The drummer son is laying down the groove to the Motown hit ‘The Clapping Song,’ his metronome set to 159,” Feather described. “On the intro, Michael Valerio scats along to his bass a la Slam Stewart, and drummer Michael Shapiro—who told me that he likes to introduce something he hasn’t used before to each project of mine—plays a frame drum.” Guitarist Grant Geissman’s solo makes the upbeat mood stick.
Every working jazz musician should skip straight to “I Love You Guys.” Another up-tempo beat and mood swing, the song perfectly pays homage to the guys Feather gladly gigs with. She nails the slings and arrows every musician faces, from crappy venues (“That little joint in Vegas, Where the pay was a joke, And the A/C broke”) and the crappy pay, to the crappy treatment and the crappy disrespect (“Being made to wear matching vests, Being told, ‘The nuts are for the guests’”). But she also nails the honor of sharing the stage with musicians who know what they’re doing, getting to watch miracles happen in their interplay, where they know just when to go off on tangents and when to come home (“It especially knocks me dead | When you take it ‘round the bend together, Then you somehow mysteriously end together” … “I love to watch you go to town. I’ll never tell you to turn it down”).
She is also that rare form of singer who knows what’s going on with the music and gives musicians their due, referencing a seven-stroke roll in the last series of lines. “That’s Gregg demonstrating. It goes | Right, right, left, left, right, right left. I kind of explain it in the booklet.”
Yet this isn’t a song simply about describing the thankless life of a working musician. Remember, Feather considers all aspects of a song in any recording. In this one, she really opens up the spaces between the lyrics for the band to punctuate with their rolls, hits, and interplays. Bassist Michael Valerio and drummer Gregg Field “go to town.”
Dog lovers Feather and Ferrante wrote “Smitten With You.” Set to an infectious march with lyrics sung hilariously — “And I don’t mind at all, Losing sleep | ‘Cause of you and your nocturnal yipping, Or that my guests | Mention your frequent nipping. They’re unlikely to sue. They’re smitten with you” — it’s a cute, harmless song that shows off Feather’s lighter side and appreciation for even a smooth bass clarinet solo by guest artist Bob Mintzer — in a dog song. “I can’t help but smile every time it starts,” Feather explained. “It continually modulates and goes around in a kind of circle.” Like a dog would.
Lorraine Feather worked on all the songs, with the contributions of long-time co-conspirators, pianist Russell Ferrante, guitarist Eddie Arkin, and pianist Shelly Berg. She also collaborated heavily with Dave Grusin on two songs, lyricizing “Memphis Stomp” from the Tom Cruise film, The Firm, for “I Thought You Did,” and Bach’s “Air On The G String” for “True.” Feather’s lyrics for “We Have The Stars” borrow Bette Davis’ line in Now, Voyager and use music from pianist Joey Calderazzo’s “La Valse Kendall,” originally found in Branford Marsalis’s “Songs Of Mirth And Melancholy.”
The things Feather notices definitely aren’t the same as anyone else. Her “Attachments” leave listeners with a visceral reaction to sweet, soft, lovely abstractions. They may “try to grab it in the air but all in vain — Gone, like an earring down the drain, gone.” Gone, not forgotten.
The 56th annual Grammys are coming up on January 26, 2014. Take note.