Short Cuts

Marshall Crenshaw, Tori Thornton

Marshall Crenshaw
#447
(Razor & Tie)

For the past 17 years, Marshall Crenshaw has managed to turn his personal obsession with Buddy Holly into a moderately successful, pop-music cottage industry. Since his impressive 1982 eponymous debut, Crenshaw has interpreted and reinvented Holly's tragically small but infinitely influential body of work, incorporating Holly's devilishly simple style into his own, creating a potent pop hybrid in the process. In an amazing example of art imitating life imitating art, Crenshaw even had the opportunity to don the suit and glasses and play the part of his doomed icon in the 1987 film La Bamba.

Although Crenshaw has gone so far as to cover Holly's work, he is no slavish imitator. With each successive release, he has found new and unique ways to honor Holly's memory and further his own cause as well. Even his less successful efforts have been admirably marked by his willingness to expand and refine his sound and style. All of Crenshaw's hammering and tinkering came to a head three years ago on his last release, the patently brilliant Miracle of Science, in which he perfected, on a track-by-track basis, everything that he had already been doing well for nearly two decades.

Crenshaw's dilemma after releasing Miracle of Science was essentially the same one he faced after releasing his critically acclaimed first album: what to do for an encore? His response the first time around was to turn up the heat and rock a little harder on Field Day, his 1983 sophomore album. His response after Miracle of Science is decidedly different. On #447, Crenshaw's latest release, he manipulates his sonic palette to include a jazzy kind of pop noir, featuring icy cool instrumental breaks and finger-snapping beatnik pop gems. Even with the stylistic departures of #447, however, Crenshaw still operates well within his standard parameters, as tracks such as "Dime a Dozen Guy" and "Ready Right Now" sport both his new experimentalism and his proven pop genius.

It's no coincidence that Crenshaw has produced the two strongest releases of his career, back to back, for his new label, Razor & Tie (which also put out The 9 Volt Years, Crenshaw's full-length, demo/odds-and-sods package that came out between Miracle of Science and #447). The label obviously believes in Crenshaw as a creative entity and not just as a potential hit factory. Granted his artistic freedom, Crenshaw has produced his finest and most challenging work to date. -- Brian Baker


Teri Thornton
I'll Be Easy to Find
(Verve Records)

The title of Teri Thornton's I'll Be Easy to Find is both ironic and prophetic: ironic because since 1963, when Thornton stopped performing, she and her music have been virtually impossible to find on stage, in music stores, or on the radio; prophetic in that it could mean she will be easy to find from now on.

In the early '60s, Thornton was praised by jazz saxophonist Julian "Cannonball" Adderly as "the greatest voice since Ella Fitzgerald." Tony Bennett called her a singer with "life, feeling, intelligence, and taste." After her first big hit, "Somewhere in the Night," led to an appearance on The Tonight Showin 1962, Thornton was poised for stardom. She performed for another year, then for some reason was not heard from again until last year, when she came back in grand style by winning the 1998 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Vocals Competition in Washington, D.C.

On I'll Be Easy to Find, her first new release in 36 years, Thornton demonstrates her vocal talents through a mixed bag of tunes. The disc opens with a remake of the ballad "Somewhere in the Night." Thornton's sinuous, twisting treatment of the song projects a dark, mysterious, film-noir mood. "I Believe in You" and "It Ain't Necessarily So" are show tunes that highlight Thornton's skill at interpreting mid- and up-tempo tunes. "Knee Deep (in the Blues)" is a Thornton original with the authentic feel of an old Bessie Smith blues piece from the late '20s. The romantic message of the title tune, delivered in Thornton's mellow tones and smeared inflections, is the vocal equivalent of a Stan Getz tenor sax solo.

On the oft-recorded "Nature Boy," Thornton's vocal is uninspired, and "Wishing Well," another Thornton original, sounds like music you might hear in a cruise ship lounge -- nice but easily forgotten. "Where Are You Running?" and the classic "I'll Be Seeing You" showcase Thornton's ability to sing ballads with a flowing-liquid quality.

In between these two tunes, like the meat in a soul food sandwich, she inserts "Feels Good," a funky homage to James Brown. The CD closes with the tune that won her the jazz vocal competition: "Salty Mama." On this selection we hear Thornton romping through a lively, blues-based original composition.

One of the strengths of these recordings is the presence on every track of a group of seasoned, hardcore jazz musicians. Jerome Richardson (also heard on Thornton's early albums, Somewhere in the Night and Open Highway) is a standout on flutes and alto sax. The rhythm section -- pianist Ray Chew, bassist Lonnie Plaxico, and drummer J.T. Lewis -- provides a consistently swinging foundation for Thornton's vocals.

I'll Be Easy to Find is a varied introduction to a jazz singer with a truly individual sound, who has been missing from the scene for far too long. -- Michael Mattox

 
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