Sooner or later, most singers get the urge to make a standards record. “And they always try to make it different,” says Natasha Miller, the sterling Bay Area-based jazz singer prized for her rich sound, streamlined phrasing and unforced feeling. “I wanted to make a standards album that was different different.”
Miller pulls that off brilliantly on her pleasing new CD, “SpinVintage,” a collection of classic songs that sound anything but standard. She puts a bracing spin on some of the best known tunes in the American Songbook, among them the Gershwin’s “Summertime,” Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies” and Rodgers & Hart’s “My Funny Valentine.” A deft musician with a keen sense of dynamics, tone color and timing, Miller brings spontaneity to the music while staying true to the melodies and lyrics. Her supple voice dances and floats through Adam Theis’ daringly original arrangements. His quirky and grooving charts, with their popping horn lines and moody film-noir flavors, frame and underscore the graceful melodies Miller sings, creating the yin-yang that gives this recording its singular sound.
“Adam is a wild man genius,” says Miller, who’s worked with the creative Bay Area arranger, trombonist and bandleader and his genre-crossing Jazz Mafia crew over the years. “I needed his playful insight into this music. I wanted him to take the standards I’d chosen – songs that were familiar to listeners and were my favorites – and basically create new songs from them.”
Produced by Miller for her Poignant Records label, “SpinVintage” is a major departure from the vocalist’s last two successful recordings, “Don’t Move,” from 2006, and “I Had a Feelin’,” releases two years earlier. They both featured the music of Bobby Sharp, the brilliant but forgotten songwriter who composed the 1961 Ray Charles classic “Unchain My Heart.” Miller brought Sharp back to public attention, showcasing many of his songs that had never been performed until she brought them to life.
With this new record, “I wanted to give the audience something they didn’t expect from me,” says Miller, a highly trained classical violinist from Des Moines who played with orchestras and chamber groups in the Midwest before moving to San Francisco in 1995 to write and perform her original songs. She worked in advertising while performing at night until the music took over and she gave up the day gig. Her signing career took off. Miller became a favorite on the Bay Area club and festival scene, and her two Bobby Sharp recordings brought her wider acclaim. Reviewing a performance of Sharp’s songs, Los Angeles Times jazz critic Don Heckman praised the way Miller sang the material “with sensitivity and insight, her cool musicality and clear articulation illuminating the unfamiliar pieces.”
A versatile jazz artist who can create a mood of hushed intimacy or hothouse exuberance, Miller draws inspiration for a wide range of musicians, from the classical violinists Itzhak Perlman and Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg to singer-songwriter Ricki Lee Jones, the Police and operatic diva Frederica von Stade.
Miller does the one operatic number on “SpinVintage” -- “Summertime” from the 1935 Gershwin opera “Porgy and Bess” – in a decidedly un-operatic manner. She sings it in a lower octave than the original, giving the song a bittersweet reading in a dark-hued Theis arrangement set in 6/4 time. It’s followed by Ray Noble’s lovely “The Very Thought of You,” which sails along in relaxed bossa nova groove perfectly suited to the smiling sensuousness of Miller’s vocal. “I wanted to bring out the beauty and simplicity of the song,” says the singer, who turns up the heat on a funky and joyous ride through the classic Etta James vehicle “At Last.”
The hip-hopping “Blue Skies,” with its darting, angular horn lines and “uppity attitude,” as Miller puts it, features an unexpected and delightful free-form rap by Dublin, a poetic Bay Area rapper who exchanges playful improvised riffs with Miller and trombonist Theis. Miller sings the very bittersweet “What’s New” with a kind of sassy irreverence that made her feel a little like Eartha Kitt. “The arrangement connotes her mentality and attitude,” says Miller, who enters after a strange intro featuring Sheldon Brown’s spooky bass clarinet. The soaring melody plays off the dark sounds bubbling beneath it.
Brown and other members of the blazing Jazz Mafia horns – trumpeters Erik Jekabson, Rich Armstrong, and Mike Olmos – appear on various tracks, along with other prime Bay Area jazz players such as pianist Matt Clark, bassists John Shifflett and Dan Feiszli and drummer Jeff Marrs. Feiszli and Armstrong join Miller for a wonderfully swinging version of Charlie Chaplin’s timeless “Smile.” Usually done as a ballad, Miller, who likes to turn things around, takes it a brisk tempo, singing the melody with the nimble grace of a tap-dancer.
“To me the song says joy, happiness, let’s keep moving,” says Miller, who’s faced a lot hardship in her life but keeps her chin up. “My life hasn’t been all that peachy, but attitude always has.” She knows what she’s talking about when she sings “Cry Me A River” – “It’s the story of my life,” she says with a laugh – one of the highlights of “SpinVintage.” She sings it with a blast of soul in a bluesy, saloon- swing setting.
The final three tunes on the CD were recorded live at Yoshi’s in Oakland, one of the country’s premier jazz spots, where Miller sings to sold-out audiences. A spare, mysterious version of “My Funny Valentine” is followed by a dramatic performance of Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child,” which begins with a feeling of tender fragility, builds to a rousing gospel-like climax then comes full circle. It features the splendid pianist Mike Greensill, best known as the accompanist to his wife, the celebrated singer Wesla Whitfield.
“Mike has a great feeling for singers. He anticipated what I was going to do next,” says Miller, whose sublime rendition of Rodgers and Hart’s “My Romance” is a stripped-down duet with Greensill. As always, she sings without artifice.
“This is a really listenable record, even thought your brain needs to figure out what’s going on sometimes,” Miller says. “It makes you think. I think there’s enough variety in the repertoire and approach than anyone can enjoy it, from the people who love jazz to those who’ve never listened to these classic American songs before.”
(release date Sept 14, 2010)