march 2011

Judy Wexler: Determined to find a distinctive opening for herself in fare both familiar and lesser known. (Photo: Mikel Healey)

Judy Wexler: A Passion For The Moment

By David McGee

Judy Wexler
Jazzed Media

California-born and -bred Judy Wexler floats above and flits about her songs with breezy joie de vivre and with such delight in their themes that a casual listener might mistake her sunniness for superficiality. Those casual listeners would be wrong. Wexler’s warm, airy voice is deceptively but deeply engaged in her repertoire’s emotional textures, and once you hear its woodwind quality in the context of her tight jazz octet’s sublime conversations, her passion for the moment, and her determination to find a distinctive opening for herself (especially in some of this album’s more familiar tunes), become dramas unto themselves.

Even so, Wexler, on this followup to her widely acclaimed second album, 2009’s Dream & Shadows, prefers to keep matters upbeat. She makes that much clear at the outset, by kicking off with a brisk, galloping treatment of Johnny Mathis’s first bit hit, 1957’s “Wonderful Wonderful.” What a smart move this was--Mathis’s heightened, dreamy romanticism is a work of art unto itself, and it seems foolish for any artist to try to best the master’s (and his producer, Mitch Miller’s) approach. Instead, Wexler takes flight in her upper register, de-emphasizing the dreaminess--but it’s there, subtly--in favor of communicating the sheer joy of feeling real love in all its dimensions; she sings “I say to myself, wonderful, wonderful, oh so wonderful, my luuuvvv” with a sense of buoyant disbelief, thrilled but nonplussed that it’s happening to her. In this endeavor one would be remiss for failing to mention the terrific soprano sax work of Bob Sheppard, who appears periodically to buttress the vocals with an affectionate, flitting monologue of his own that is the instrumental counterpart to Wexler’s bright-eyed joy, and the bracing, conversational piano musings of producer Alan Pasqua, whose tasty restraint is the ballast advising, in effect, “don’t get carried away here.”

From her debut album, Easy On the Heart, Judy Wexler performs “Love Is a Necessary Evil.” Photos from a July 1, 2010 performance at The Lighthouse Café in Hermosa Beach, CA. Event photography by Craig Levine.

This in turn proves to be the perfect setup for Wexler’s take on the great Abbey Lincoln’s “And How I Hoped For Your Love,” in which Pasqua’s piano articulates the deepest yearnings expressed in Lincoln’s lyrics, while Larry Koonse’s graceful, gut-string guitar solo heightens the reflective mood. Wexler brings it home, though, with a deliberate, quietly smoldering reading of lyrics describing both finding and losing love that is equal parts heartache and hope, a notion Wexler underscores with the little hesitation move she employs when she sings/speaks the title sentiment--“and how I hoped--hoped--for your love…”

Conscious or not, the sequencing of “Wonderful Wonderful” and “And How I Hoped For Your Love” at the top the album pretty much sets the tone for the other 10 songs to come--most of what we encounter on Under A Painted Sky is encapsulated in these two numbers, after which Wexler and Pasqua work variations on these themes, with a couple of memorable detours into darker terrain. A wonderful arrangement of Jeri Southern’s career launching pop hit from 1955, “An Occasional Man,” ascends, descends and curls all around Wexler’s playful, rhythmically astute vocal celebrating the solitude of an island paradise where she can swim naked, feast on tropical fruit and, when the spirit moves her, enjoy the companionship of a gent--with the latter clearly the least of her priorities; perhaps Walt Fowler’s discursive flugelhorn solo--alternately skittering and crooning--stands in for the utilitarian male being put in his place. Purely dreamy and longing, Wexler’s reading of Sunny Skylar’s “Don’t Wait Too Long,” supplemented by another evocative gut-string guitar solo courtesy Larry Koonse, is a simple, straightforward expression of desire, unambiguous and scoring a direct hit on the heart in one of Wexler’s most persuasive recorded vocals yet.

This engaging dialogue between Wexler and her band continues unabated through the rest of the album. One of the many highlights is “Avec le temps,” the fatalistic, even nihilistic, French hit originally recorded by unapologetic anarchist Léo Ferré, who was less famous for his political leanings than for his beloved songs (in his native land he’s considered an equal of Jacques Brel). The most memorable version is by the tragic Egyptian-born, French naturalized diva who went by the professional name of Dalida and committed suicide in 1987, at age 54; Abbey Lincoln also recorded an acidic version of the song, with Pat Metheny on guitar, on her 1994 A Turtle’s Dream album. At 7:48, Wexler’s version is the longest song on the album, owing to an expanded instrumental passage midway through in which Koones and Pasqua offer moody, ruminative solos (it’s about time here, too, to recognize the stellar rhythm section work of drummer Steve Hass, bassist Darek Oles and percussionist Alex Acuna, who are steady, subtle and empathetic throughout, but are especially striking on this number). But again, it’s Wexler who weaves a special magic to elevate the whole affair onto a higher spiritual plane. Ferré’s lyrics have been translated in various ways, and the snippet Wexler sings in English towards the end of the song, from which the album derives its title, is yet another translation (Ferré's lyric “under the unvarnished advice,” follows and makes sense after “between the words, between the lines and…” but does not mention “under a painted sky”); regardless, the Ferré fatalism--“with time, everything goes away”--comes through in Wexler’s wistful reading set in melancholy mise en scene perfect for a ‘60s French film from, say, Claude Lelouch.

Léo Ferré performs his tragic song ‘Avec le temps,’ a lyric from which Judy Wexler took the title for her new album

Other than Ferré’s own recording of his song, the most famous cover of the oft-recorded “Avec le temps” is the 1971 rendition by the legendary Egyptian-born, French naturalized singer known as Dalida (born Iolanda Cristina Gigliotti), seen here in a live performance clip. Sadly, Dalida seemed to live the life the song describes, and died by her own hand in 1987.

On “Till There Was You” Wexler is up against not only the original version from The Music Man but also the Beatles’ version on their first album. As she does with “Wonderful Wonderful” so she does with Meredith Wilson’s lovely tune--taking it at a stately pace with probing passages and a certain palpable relief in the swooning way she reads “there was love, all around/but I never heard it singing/no, I never heard it at all/till there was you,” with another sensitive assist instrumentally from Bob Sheppard’s dipping, darting soprano sax solo. Carmen McRae’s wrenching, blues-drenched piano ballad, “Last Time for Love,” salutes yet another strong female vocalist who’s had an impact on Wexler, this time in a saloon-style setting, with Pasqua adding delicate piano filigrees along with an introspective solo run, the rhythm section playing softly, unobtrusively, and Wexler both aching and defiant in her conflicted kissoff--even as she quits him, she can’t quit him. Thus are the wonders of Under a Painted Sky, a high-water mark for one of contemporary music’s gifted jazz vocalists. Some of its many pleasures are easily accessible; others require the listener to work a bit, and there’s nothing wrong with being challenged as a listener when the art in question delivers so much upon closer inspection. The center holds, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and in all aspects this album is a beauty.

Judy Wexler’s Under a Painted Sky is available at

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
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Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024