Sunday morning coming down

We went to see local jazz singer Connie Evingson perform songs from her recording Sweet Happy Life this past Sunday at the Dakota Jazz Club and Restaurant in downtown Minneapolis. The recording is a tribute to the songs of Norman Gimbel, and it is terrific. We are crazy about Connie, but we really loved this show with its emphasis on Gimbel’s contribution to the popularization of bossa nova.

Who, you might ask, is Norman Gimbel? Having written the lyrics to “The Girl From Ipanema,” “Killing Me Softly With His Song,” and many other hits, he might be the most successful lyricist you’ve never heard of.

Sweet Happy Life is Connie’s ninth CD and may be her best. She says that of all her recordings she worked the hardest on it. I was struck by the beauty of the arrangements played by the excellent musicians backing her last Sunday. During a break I asked her about the arrangements. She said she had hired Danny Embrey, a guitarist who worked with Sergio Mendes, to write the arrangements for the recording, and you can hear that he added something special to the mix.

The video below comes from Connie’s CD release party in June at the Jungle Theater in Minneapolis. I pick this video because it captures the quality of Connie’s voice the best of the available videos. In it Connie performs the Toots Thielmans composition “Bluesette,” lyrics by Norman Gimbel.

How did Connie get the idea to record a set of songs by Norman Gimbel? She says she applied a rule of three. In a period of a couple of months three songs with lyrics by Gimbel caught her ears: “Sway,” “Sweet Happy Life,” and “So Nice.” She explains: “When I looked further into the catalog, I was struck by the number of great songs for which he’d written lyrics — it was like discovering gold.”

Gimbel comments on the recording: “I’m flattered and grateful for such a tasteful compilation of my songs. Connie Evingson is a wonderful singer and has given bossa nova and me a marvelous gift.”

I sent a copy of the new recording to my friend Bill McClay. Bill comments:

It is terrific, just as you say. To pick one unexpected example, I have never heard a version of “So Nice” that compares with this one. In fact, it’s the kind of cover that is so fresh and yet revealing that it causes you to rediscover the song — in fact, it makes you feel that this performer is the first one to have fully understood the song. (I felt this same way when I first heard Eva Cassidy’s version of “Over the Rainbow”; she turned a wonderful fantasy song into a song of almost religious yearning, a profound and poignant longing for transcendence. And not just plausibly, but so that you never hear the song the same way again.) It tells you a lot about her, meaning that she cares about words and meaning, that she would build an album around a lyricist.

What makes Connie’s music so glorious, and her style so well suited to this kind of music, just as it is so well suited to the Django-gypsy-Paris style [on her Gypsy In My Soul compact disc], is the interaction between her fluid singing and the steady, regular, propulsive rhythm of her accompaniment. She has a special knack for this. “So Nice” is a song that can sound almost mechanical and sing-song, like a calliope, with so much of its melody consisting of moving up and down scales. It’s often performed that way. And some bossa-nova singers — Astrud Gilberto, for example — play up that kind of thing; a kind of mechanical quality and cool, flat voice is part of their appeal.

But Connie’s singing isn’t like that. It’s cool but it’s also romantic. It moves around, plays against the sidemen with a kind of romantic rubato, robbing a beat here and giving it back there, defeating your expectations, holding back a note just to tease, resisting the regimentation of the insistent beat. At certain moments she just takes off completely, glides and soars over it all, and then comes back, landing in just the right place like a skillful dancer. But what makes it all work is the interplay between her vocal fluidity and the steadiness of her rhythm section.

Connie annotates the songs on the recording here. If you enjoy the video above, you may want to check out “Agua de Beber/Girl From Ipanema,” also from her CD release party, or my own brutally edited video (sorry!) of “Meditation” from this past Sunday at the Dakota (Tanner Taylor on piano, Dave Karr on sax, Gordy Johnson on bass).

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