I must confess that, for the longest time, I thought of singing as music for people who couldn’t play anything. I naively put instruments in a hierarchy of difficulty with violins at the top, probably, piano somewhere in the middle and guitar just above the cowbell—which shared a tier with drums and bass. (This expert analysis came from someone who, apart from one month failing at the harmonica, had only ever played keys.)
Singing didn’t even feature in this pyramid—it was just making shapes with your mouth, after all. Anyone can do that, right? This was how I felt as a Britpop-loving teen—it was only when I discovered jazz that my mind was changed, quickly realizing that Fitzgerald, Gaillard, Holiday, and the likes controlled their voices with the same expertise Grapelli exhibited with his bow or Tatum on his keys.
Canadian songstress Angela Verbrugge is another virtuoso of the vocal cords, master manipulator of a mouth through which pure jazz flows. Don’t take my word for it—see also the 2020 JazzTimes Readers’ Poll, which nominated her for “Best Female Vocalist” alongside the legendary Diana Krall. Oh and Verbrugge went on to win that year, by the way.
Her previous album, The Night We Couldn’t Say Good Night, provided ample evidence to support this accolade, with recent release Love for Connoisseurs doing nothing to undermine it. Every original track overflows with sixths, sevenths, chromatic trills, and all the other tropes one would expect from an instrumental solo, delivered every bit as precisely as the best trumpeter or trombonist would.
Verbrugge’s voice is clear, crisp and incredibly nimble—my review of The Night… compared it favorably with fellow vocalese virtuosos Annie Ross and Yolande Bavan. I stick by that comparison, even though Verbrugge doesn’t quite demonstrate their legendary range. Nonetheless, the middle eight of “Cold and Hot Blues” sees her match Dave Say’s rapid sax solo note for note, while “Maybe Now’s the Time” sees her ably take over the walking bassline as bassist Jodi Proznick delivers her own elaborate solo.
Miles Black and Joel Fountain join this trio on piano and drums respectively. Fountain underpins the album very ably, though he only gets one opportunity to really let loose, on “Jive Turkey”—Black’s decades of playing and arranging experience get more of a chance to make themselves known, with his rollercoaster solos appearing in most of the album’s twelve tracks. (See especially “Mr Right.”)
These vary widely in flavor from swinging toe tapper “Enough’s Enough”—which is just begging for some Balboa dancing—to bossa nova ballad “Je Ne Veux Pas Te Dire Bonsoir.” The bebop influence is strong, with several tracks paying homage to the classics of the genre. (“Quarantine,” for instance, opens with a bassline very reminiscent of Miles Davis’ 1950s classic “All Blues.”) But while not every track fits comfortably within The Syncopated Times’ remit, this whole album will surely appeal to those of more catholic jazz tastes.
This is one of those discs I can’t just listen to—one which has me running to the piano several times per track, crying aloud, “What on Earth did they do there?” A great example is “Jive Turkey,” the verse of which has Verbrugge’s voice dancing gymnically around an A harmonic minor scale, replete with sharp ninths and other haunting embellishments. It’s absolute smut for the ears, if that sort of thing excites you.
Verbrugge (it’s pronounced ver-Bruges, like the Belgian city) is also a talented lyricist, penning verses which are timely and relatable while capturing the essence and elegance of classic crooning: “Twentieth Century Fox” is an ode to old-fashioned gentlemen—the kind who hold doors for ladies and don’t get lost in their phones during dinner. Meanwhile, “Quarantine” stands as a musical record of “A time in our world unforeseen / A virus without a vaccine / With everyone glued to a screen.” Such tracks are a welcome reminder that jazz isn’t just something historical—it’s very much alive and capable of relevance.
“[Verbrugge’s] vision for this project was to create [a] new vocal jazz repertoire,” the album’s EPK says, “by collaborating with composers that write innovative, yet catchy, melodies in the style of the classic jazz standards.” This she has definitely done, with help from her quartet and six music scribes: New Yorkers Ken Fowser, Nick Hempton, Ray Gallon and Neal Miner, plus Vancouverites Miles Black and Saul Berson.
See the album’s EPK website for several enthralling videos of its recording in progress—or check out the live album launch gig on YouTube—then head over to Bandcamp to pick up a high-quality download for as little as $10. And at that price, this award-worthy effort is an absolute steal.