B E T H D U N C A N
A treasure trove of melodic invention, distilled emotion, and vivacious wit, the American Songbook can also serve as a gilded cage, confining jazz vocalists to oft-interpreted material written during the first half of the 20th century. Sacramento jazz vocalist Beth Duncan has never been one to do things by the book, and her new album I’m All Yours exemplifies the ample creative rewards of grappling with the present moment. A collection of songs written by Oakland-based composer and lyricist Martine Tabilio, I'm All Yours is Duncan’s third release, and it’s a persuasively swinging project brimming with smart new songs that deliver many of the pleasures found in American Songbook standards. It’s also a confident and deeply satisfying statement by an artist who has come into her own at middle age.
As on her first two albums, Duncan is joined by a stellar cast of players, including pianist Joe Gilman, vibraphone legend Bobby Hutcherson’s go-to accompanist in his last years, and Australian-born multi-wind expert Jacam Manricks, who spent more than a decade in New York City recording with leading improvisers such as tenor and soprano
“There is a glut of wonderful singers doing standards albums, which makes sense because people like to latch on to things they know,” Duncan says. “But I really felt like Marty’s songs need to be heard. Her songs speak to me. She really knows how to capture feelings well and tell a story.”
Duncan and Tabilio had been hearing about each other from mutual friends for a while when they first met in 2008 and struck up a friendship. A late-blooming composer who started songwriting at 50, Tabilio had established herself on the Los Angeles scene working with top-shelf jazz artists such as Tierney Sutton, Sara Gazarek, Tamir Hendelman, Josh Nelson, and Christian Jacob. Duncan ended up recording three of Tabilio’s songs on her second album, 2012’s critically hailed Comes the Fall.
With Gilman leading a highly cohesive combo featuring guitarist Steve Homan, bassist Matt Robinson, and drummer Rick Lotter, I’m All Yours is the first album devoted to Tabilio’s songs, but it likely won’t be the last. Driven by Robinson’s buoyant bass line, the title track is a headlong declaration of devotion that leaves plenty of space for a meaty Manricks tenor solo and lithe, singing Gilman piano passage. Possessing a warm, burnished tone and a deft sense of swing, Duncan renders each phrase as part of an intoxicating tale that steadily gains momentum.
“It All Begins With You” is a similarly besotted tune, but the emotion is conveyed in the form of a sensuous ballad rather than a pulse-quickening groove. Becalmed and unaffected, Duncan’s performance floats on a silken mesh of flutes. Set to a hard-bop horn figure, “Breakup Funk” delves into the other side of the coin as Duncan reproaches a lover for his unexpected kiss-off. The tone is more anger than sadness, a tough-minded mood echoed by Manricks’s sinewy tenor solo and Homan’s crisply stinging guitar work.
No song better captures Tabilio’s gift for laying felicitous lines over a memorable melody than “Serves Me Right,” a graceful requiem for a love affair that keys on Tom Peron’s gleaming trumpet tone. Duncan’s performance—rueful, pained, but unsentimental—hits just the right emotional note. As a vocalist who gives her instrumental collaborators considerable space to shine, she delivers “The Band” with the affectionate enthusiasm one would expect. Another standout track is the lovely ballad “Marika’s Melody,” which showcases Duncan’s voice with a delicate orchestral arrangement.
The album closes with two more winners. “Your Song’s Passé” laments the indignities of aging with a wink and a wry retort to the “OK boomer” refrain. And the galloping “Kit & Kaboodle Blues” is a classic example of how the blues can transform trouble into communal celebration as a worthy addition to the venerable genre of songs describing everything going wrong. I’m All Yours is one of those rare albums where everything goes right. Marked by poise, maturity, and exemplary taste, the project is an ideal pairing of artist and material.
It’s no coincidence that Duncan belongs to a little-noticed but remarkable wave of jazz singers who have gained prominence after dedicating themselves to the music in middle age. The powerhouse René Marie is the best-known example, but the impressive roster also includes Seattle’s Gail Pettis, L.A.’s Judy Wexler, and Philadelphia’s Michelle Lordi. Though they’re all very different artists, they share an interest in off-the-beaten-path material and the life experience to find new depth in familiar songs.
Duncan brings a particularly wide-ranging résumé to the bandstand. As an award-winning radio journalist, she's covered breaking news and interviewed leading politicians and policymakers as well as influential writers, artists, and musicians. Coming into her own as a jazz artist wasn't so much the fulfillment of a longtime ambition as the organic culmination of creative seeds planted in her youth. "Singing has been a part of my life as long as I can remember," Duncan says, "But I don't think I had the tools to find my voice in jazz as a young person. I needed to do a lot of investigation. The past two decades have been such a joy."
Born in Salt Lake City on November 1, 1952, Beth Duncan moved with her family to San Francisco at the age of nine before they settled in Sacramento. She sang in choirs throughout grade school and in church too. At home, she got turned on to jazz by her older brother, who kept records by the likes of Stan Getz, Sonny Rollins, and Mel Tormé in steady rotation. Duncan was serious enough that she sought out legendary vocal teacher Judy Davis (whose students included Barbra Streisand, Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Mary Martin, and Grace Slick). After a successful audition at the Claremont Hotel, she drove down regularly to work with Davis at her Oakland studio for four years. She started working professionally as a singer in a Top 40 band, slipping in an occasional jazz tune whenever she could between the pop and funk hits. Frequenting the Sacramento jazz spot On Broadway, she’d often sit in with the house band and formed longtime friendships with many of the city’s top jazz players.
Her own taste ran toward the great soul singers and song stylists. “Early on I was always listening to Nancy Wilson,” she says. “I loved the drama and soulfulness. I loved Natalie Cole and the R&B singers who crossed into jazz zones. Much later one of my favorite singers of all time was Kellye Gray. She was such an influence on me. I loved her fearlessness and sexiness and vulnerability. She could sing in a whisper or tear the walls down.”
Vocal nodes put the kibosh on her Top 40 career, and Duncan transitioned into broadcasting. Over the years she’s held several different positions, working as a news anchor, reporter, managing editor, and now as a substitute host for Capital Public Radio’s current affairs show Insight. For more than a decade she mostly set singing aside, but steadily encouraged by friends and family familiar with her love of jazz she decided to turn her 50th-birthday party into a performance. The experience was something of an epiphany, and Duncan decided to begin working on developing her own repertoire. Performing around town, she started building a reputation as a thoughtful and hard-swinging jazz singer, a reputation greatly enhanced by the 2005 release of her debut album Orange Colored Sky.
Her 2012 follow-up Comes the Fall gained international attention and extensive airplay with its mix of inventively reworked standards and Tabilio originals. More than her beautiful voice, Duncan brought emotional intelligence to the material that turned the songs into compelling narratives. Continuing to evolve and challenge herself, Duncan has found an ideal muse in the music of Martine Tabilio, and I’m All Yours shows the incontrovertible power of women in their prime. •
Beth Duncan: I’m All Yours
Street Date: July 24, 2020
Web Site: www.bethduncan.com