London Calling: A Toast to Julie London is Lyn Stanley’s sixth album since 2013, with another due out before this review sees print. Seven superb albums in six years suggests someone making up for a lot of lost time. Well, maybe not lost in the case of Stanley, whose life has surely been full, but she was in her 50s when she made that first album and has had another round-number birthday since, though you’d never prove it by her looks, energy, and activity. I’ve not space to detail her extraordinary trajectory from top marketing CEO to champion competitive ballroom dancer to internationally acclaimed jazz singer, so I refer you to Andrew Quint’s excellent interview in Issue 265.
Stanley’s got it all: brains, beauty, personality, and a true alto with a gorgeous lower register that invites all the “s” words—smoky, sultry, sexy, sophisticated. Her first priority is always the lyrics, the story in the song. Even when you don’t share her view of a piece, the why of her interpretive decisions and the intelligence behind them are evident. To this add impeccable taste in material (drawn mostly from the Great American Songbook), near flawless pronunciation, first-rate musicianship, phrasing second to none, unerring judgment in assembling the best musical and technical collaborators, and a sheer joy in performing that makes every one of her albums sounds like a personal dream come true.
Inasmuch as she throws herself so completely into a song as to inhabit it, I was intrigued that her first tribute album is to Julie London, the great minimalist who turned non-interpretation, casualness, even throw-away into a style. But Stanley doesn’t attempt to “do” London, though she avails herself of some of London’s favorite instruments, notably guitar, here the estimable John Chiodini, and double bass, the wonderful Chuck Berghofer, who indulges a ritzy allusion (which I shall not spoil) at the end of “Bye Bye Blackbird,” a song Stanley dispatches with rhythmic panache and wry humor (“so is he” inflected as a naughty aside, a sly elbow in the ribs). “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” finds her low-key but intense expressiveness rejecting the driving rhythm-and-blues soulfulness of performers who made hits of this song, instead zeroing in laser-like on the hurt that lies at its heart, the lyrics about a lover who’s learned from third parties of her partner’s deceit and betrayal.
No surprise that several selections are done in dance tempos: a bossa nova rhythm under “As Time Goes By” lightens a song that can get heavy, a novel swinging up-tempo for “How About Me?” suggests the rejected lover thumbing her nose at the man who’s jilted her, an absolutely witchy tango for “You and the Night and the Music” infuses it with almost desperate urgency. “I’ve Got a Crush on You” gets the full sultry treatment, as Stanley alone can do, yet with a coquettishness that’s playful and subtly ironic. No such irony dilutes her frank sensuousness in “Sway” and “Go Slow,” both of which might court an X were albums rated like movies. And what a brilliant stroke to segue from “Go Slow” into “Nice Girls Don’t Stay for Breakfast,” the passionate night before now a clear one-nighter with no guilt attached whatsoever.
She includes two versions of “Summertime,” the first given the typical hot Southern summer evening bluesy treatment—great steamy backup by Chiodini, Berghofer, and the pianist Mike Garson. The second, which concludes the album, is a sans rehearsal one-off in the last seven minutes of a session, because Garson wanted to do it as a duet with Stanley. The results are exquisite, the intimacy holding one spellbound as Garson weaves gossamer textures around Stanley’s limpid vocals, the lyrics sung so simply, so directly, with such depth of feeling as to restore the song to its origins, a mother soothing her baby to sleep. “It’s perfect,” said the owner of the studio, “wouldn’t change a thing.” Nor would I.
As with all her previous albums, Stanley’s presentation is a class act all the way: striking cover art, a gatefold jacket, a lavish 16-page booklet with excellent notes by the distinguished jazz critic Scott Yanow, a brief history of each song followed by information about the arrangements and Stanley’s approach. The reference-caliber recording—Allen Sides and Bernie Grundman share principal credits—is so fine it can be enjoyed for itself alone: clear, clean, natural, dynamic, transparent, and true. You feel there’s nothing between you and the performers, and surfaces of the vinyl edition are pristine.