Sunday, June 17, 2018

Allegra Levy - Looking at the Moon (SteepleChase Productions ApS 2018)

Vocalist Allegra Levy brings fresh interpretations to songs with a lunar theme on her third album Looking at the Moon

CD Release concert on Sunday, June 17 at the Jazz Standard

“Levy’s music is sophisticated, worldly and swinging, with a wide range of tonal colors and moods not unlike Portland’s Pink Martini. Levy’s voice is one we should expect to hear from for a long time.”
Mike Hamad, Hartford Courant

“Her lyrics are uncommonly smart, full of striking imagery and a pervasive angst. As all first-rate jazz vocalists do, she sings in character, word by word, line by line.”
Alan Young, New York Music Daily

The usual way to start a jazz vocal career is to stick with standards, trilling and scatting in the well-traveled tracks of great singers who have come before. Rising young New York-based singer-songwriter Allegra Levy eschewed that approach on her acclaimed first two albums, which consisted almost entirely of original compositions. Now, with her third release, she turns to songs written by others, with a unifying theme: the moon.

Looking at the Moon, due June 15, 2018 on SteepleChase Records, features 13 much-loved odes to the shimmering orb, from “Blue Moon” and “Paper Moon” to the inimitable “No Moon at All.”    

Levy’s first album, the critically acclaimed 2014 Lonely City, was hailed by The New York Times as “fresh,” “exotic,” and “far beyond the ordinary.” Then came last year’s Cities Between Us. “If Allegra Levy is not yet on every jazz listener’s radar, this new album should rectify the situation,” declared JazzHistoryOnline. The combination of Levy’s potent songwriting abilities and stunning vocals led JazzTimes to dub her a “double-barreled talent.”

With her new album Looking at the Moon, Levy abandons her autobiographical “city” theme, setting her sights out of this world, but also, in another respect, on more familiar ground. “I was a little bit nervous about doing a record that was not original works because I’m still trying to develop my voice as a composer,” the 28-year-old Levy admits. “But I’ve always wanted to do this moon-themed thing. For some reason, people seem to write really good tunes when it comes to the elusive moon.”

Levy concedes that there is nothing all that novel when it comes to singing about the moon. Frank Sinatra didn’t just fly us to the moon, for example; he recorded an entire album about it. Yet the lunar sphere has long fascinated Levy. She was moonstruck from an early age. “The first thing that my mom used to sing to me when I was a young child was ‘Moonshadow,’” she recalls. Cat Stevens’ 1970 pop hit proved to be more than a hip lullaby for her. It was love at first sound. 

The first song Levy ever performed publicly in her native Connecticut, as a teenager, was “How High the Moon,” one of Ella Fitzgerald’s signature tunes. Later, when required to create a big-band chart for her senior thesis at New England Conservatory, she chose Henry Mancini’s “Moon River.” She closed most of her gigs with that song for years and has adapted it for the opening track. “There was no real reason for any of these moon connections,” she says. “They just seemed to appear in every phase of my life.” 

Levy’s collaborators on the new record are bassist Tim Norton, a fellow Connecticut native who assisted with many of the arrangements, and her longtime accompanist Carmen Staaf, who recently served as pianist at the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance in Los Angeles. “They helped on this project big time,” she says. “I definitely want to give them credit for that.”

After featuring a full rhythm section on her previous albums, Levy chose to drop the drums entirely this time. “I thought it would be cool to play with a smaller group. We did a bunch of duos and trios as well.” The only other player featured is guitarist Alex Goodman, a winner of the Montreux Jazz Festival International Guitar Competition who has been noted for his “fluid lyricism” by DownBeat and “dazzling improvisational dexterity” by the NYC Jazz Record.  “In many ways, I think this record is a quieter, more intimate reflection of my innermost thoughts,” Levy says.

Yet even while scaling back on the personnel, Levy expanded her repertoire, straying from her usual strict diet of straight-up jazz to include more modern fare. Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon” is included, as is the Cat Stevens piece in a rather atonal rendition that is not your mother’s “Moonshadow.” Not her mother’s, anyway. “It’s definitely the loss of innocence piece on the record,” Levy says. Levy’s composing skills may have something to do with the originality of her takes on tried and true tracks like “Polka Dots and Moonbeams,” sung with a freshness that makes them new.

The challenge of creating an album of standards is not lost on Levy. “I’m definitely nervous about singing standards,” she says, “even though that’s the way I started, and that’s where my inspiration really comes from. Then you put yourself out there to be compared to every single jazz singer on the planet.”

This may be especially true when you train your sights on what – next to love itself – may be the world’s most popular subject of song. “When I started talking about this project, there were so many moon songs to choose from that I actually ended up eliminating a lot of them,” she says. To make the matter even more difficult, everyone she asked had a different idea about the best moon song ever written. 

In the end, Levy chose a range of songs including “I Got the Sun in the Morning,” Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon,” and “Moon Ray” (with an updated version inspired by one of her favorite singers, Nancy King). “I tried to stick to tunes that I really felt a connection with,” she says.  The one exception is the classic “I’ll Be Seeing You.” “That was not supposed to be on the record at all,” says Levy. “I had never sung it on a gig before. I had never even rehearsed it.” But SteepleChase Records founder Nils Winther wanted Levy to include it because of its closing line, which begins, “I’ll be looking at the moon.” So she recorded it at the very end of the session, and as serendipity would have it, that line ended up being the title of the recording.

For Levy, Looking at the Moon was a fun project whose time had come. “These are tunes that I really like to sing,” she says. “They just all happen to have a moon theme.” Although she named her dog Luna, “I’m not a moon worshipper,” Levy insists. But watch out! Listening to her latest album may make one out of you.