Does the release of Lyn Stanley’s latest album, her fifth since 2013, warrant a full page of coverage in this magazine? I think it does, as Stanley is one of us. She recognizes the importance of good sound to advancing a musical message and spares no expense to achieve this end. She’s hired veteran engineer Al Schmitt and mastering maven Bernie Grundman for all of her projects, books time at the best LA and New York City studios, and has paid A-list musicians to assist in realizing her ideas. Early on in her improbable career—Stanley has been singing seriously for only six or seven years, after decades as a marketing professional and success as a competitive ballroom dancer—Grundman advised her to attend audio shows, and she’s become a distinctive presence roaming the hallways at RMAF, AXPONA, and even Munich, dressed to the nines with a bag of discs in tow. Stanley has sold around 36,000 LPs, SACDs, and reel-to-reel tapes to date, a remarkable number for a jazz singer who doesn’t belong to a label. To be sure, she has a following among jazzbos who are devotees of the great chanteuses of the past and present. But the marketer in Stanley definitely has us—audiophiles—in her sights.
Both sonically and in terms of the musical support she gets from her musicians, The Moonlight Sessions Volume 2 is up to Stanley’s usual standard. (Volume 1 was released in May; both albums are available on SACD and as limited edition 45rpm one-step pressing LPs.) She assembled four groupings of players, three led by superb pianist/arrangers—Mike Garson, Tamir Hendelman, and Christian Jacob—and consistently clear, dimensional, and richly characterized piano sound dominates the accompaniments. There are some spectacular solos from these players, Jacob on “The Very Thought of You,” Garson in “Angel Eyes” (to note just two), and extended breaks by other sidemen, including saxophonist Rickey Woodard, trombonist Bob McChesney, and Chuck Finley on trumpet and flugelhorn are equally accomplished. Chuck Berghofer is a steady presence on acoustic bass and several well-known drummers provide an alert rhythmic underpinning. Six of the 14 selections have the support of a substantial string section, recorded in Europe and convincingly inserted into the mix.
But none of the above really matters if the vocalist doesn’t deliver, and Stanley continues to up her game. Volume 2 of The Moonlight Sessions is a “concept album,” a program of songs from The Great American Songbook that explores the downside of romantic attachment. The only lighthearted, uptempo selection on the album is the first one, “Makin’ Whoopee,” which here isn’t offered as an anachronistically winking novelty number but as a reminder that relationships may start with a rush of carnality but, very soon, a potentially corrosive vulnerability can ensue. Stanley has expertly chosen and sequenced 13 songs after the opener that examine different aspects of this subject—“That Old Feeling,” “How Deep Is the Ocean?,” “Since I Fell for You,” and other familiar examples, frequently melded with classical music references by her able arrangers. Mostly, Stanley nails them all, with careful attention to every word of text and a freedom to her phrasing that makes the material fresh. Her famously “sultry” vocal instrument here seems especially world-weary, almost desperately so. The highlight of the program for me was a selection that really isn’t from the GAS, Janis Ian’s “At Seventeen” from that singer/songwriter’s 1975 album Between the Lines. Ian wrote the song at the age of 24, looking back at her own early adolescence, but the song’s poignancy only increases when delivered by a woman in late middle age. An arrangement with a prominent harp part suggests a painful time remembered through the haze of a lifetime. It’s heartbreaking.
Another audio writer, someone I greatly respect, came down pretty hard on Volume 1 of The Moonlight Sessions (he’d been quite positive about Stanley’s work in the past), concluding that the problem was that, since the singer has become her own producer, there’s no one in the control booth to tell when an idea is bad. To be sure, there’s the occasional miscalculation: “Smile” as a slow bossa nova doesn’t work for me. But that’s a small price to pay. I’m much happier getting Lyn Stanley’s insights on the human condition, as refracted through a singular musical sensibility, unfiltered. She’s meticulous in her technical execution but takes chances artistically, which is a recipe for enduring success.