Jazz is at its best when it blasts through its self-imposed prison walls and digs into the music of other genres for inspiration. Sometimes these sorts of experiments fall flat, while other ventures reveal treasure troves of idea-driven greatness. In the case of Roseanna Vitro, she locked on the latter with The Music of Randy Newman.
To be fair, it’s not as though Newman’s music is all that different from the foundations of jazz. It’s not much of a stretch to imagine stripped-down tunes like “Sail Away” redone in lush, candlelit style. The storytelling path Newman’s songs inevitably take really do lend themselves to jazz.
So Vitro’s challenge isn’t so much in the transition of style but in the transition of story. Can the vocalist translate the sheer wealth of character, adventure and mood into her own voice and make these songs her own?
For starters, Vitro has roots in the Southern-flavoured tradition. An Arkansas native, she easily sinks her teeth into the laidback style of these pieces. Sometimes she’s a few steps away from a full-blown drawl, while other times she engages with subtle accents and enunciation. It’s hard to match Newman’s unique vocal expression, of course, but Vitro creates her own palette and works forward with gentle ease.
Vitro’s band, the Randy Newman Project for now, is comprised of pianist/arranger Mark Soskin, violinist Sara Caswell, percussionist Jamey Haddad, guitarist Steve Cardenas, bassist Dean Johnson, and Tim Horner. Caswell, who was heard recently on Esperanza Spalding’s Chamber Music Society, is a special treat. She adds beautiful texture to these songs, sometimes acting like a second vocalist.
The aforementioned “Sail Away” lets Vitro dig in to Newman’s caustic social commentary without missing a step. The song loses something without Newman’s tone, sure, but Vitro more than holds her own and almost softens the blow of the original. She doesn’t shy away from the political content, of course, but it is somewhat shielded by the arrangement. With this in mind, it would’ve been interesting to hear Vitro’s take on “Political Science.”
On the simpler side, Vitro turns “If I Didn’t Have You” from Monsters, Inc. into a nice bossa nova.
Love is the topic, albeit from different ends of the bargain, on “Feels Like Home” and “Every Time It Rains.” Vitro captures a touch of whispered sensuality on the former, while the latter soars thanks to Caswell’s lovely violin.
So did Roseanna Vitro translate Newman’s stories into effective musical visions of her own? I think so. There’s a lot of wonderful stuff on The Music of Randy Newman, most of which ably captures the spirit of the original tunes while transferring Vitro’s own experiences and loves to the listener.