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La Tanya Hall at Bop Stop, December 20

Every week, it seems, I get a new CD by female jazz singer, presumably aspiring to a big career. Putting aside the absurdity of that notion, the formula remains the same: collect a few standards, hire some big-name sidemen, spend a lot of a cover photo and hope for the best. Depressingly, most of these releases don’t rise above the level of a vanity project. So what a refreshing surprise it was to discover that La Tanya Hall‘s “Say Yes” is not one of them.

Hall, who will appear tomorrow night at Cleveland’s Bop Stop, offers an imaginative program with arguably only one standard, a daringly slow “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye.” “Jitterbug Waltz” and “Softly As In A Morning Sunrise” are hardly rarities, but when was the last time you heard the lyrics? Hall’s classic, out-of-Sarah-Vaughn style fits the material like a designer gown. Even “Poor Butterfly’s” retrogressive exotica is faithfully rendered, if arguably a song we don’t need to hear again.

Better yet are the jazz standards “Pensativa” (well, it should be a standard) and Monk’s “Well You Needn’t” and “Pannonica,” which has a short, apposite interpolation of Dizzy Gillespie’s “Con Alma.” Those are unusual choices, even for a jazz singer, and Hall does them proud.

Even more unusual are the albums opening and closing tracks, Nat Adderley’s “All You Need To Say (Never Say Yes)” and “The Fiddle and the Drum” respectively. The former is a bewitching invitation into Hall’s artistry while the latter is Joni Mitchell’s 1969 antiwar anthem that in Hall’s hands becomes a lament for the state of the nation made all the more devastating by the haunting restraint of the arrangement (Hall is a graduate of Colorado’s Columbine High School).

It’s by Andy Milne, the date’s sparkling and imaginative pianist and leader of the Unison Trio, an apt name. Bassist John Hébert and drummer Clarence Penn are certainly luxury casting, and their work alone would be a reason to pick up this CD–and to check out tomorrow evening’s Bop Stop show. John Hébert and Clarence Penn? C’mon.

While the holiday season is bathed in so much manufactured nostalgia, La Tanya Hall and the Unison Trio offer the real thing, the elegance of a authentic jazz club date featuring first-rate material in a swanky setting. What more could you want under your tree?

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