It has been humorously said that Alexis Cole may be the most talented singer to ever hold a top secret military clearance and, even after a dozen albums of a great career, she may be the best kept secret in Jazz. I must admit that to be true for me. But, after her new album, Sky Blossom, that is no longer the case.
In 2009 she released her first albums and then joined The US army as a jazz singer. She served seven years in the army's big band but continued recording. She has recorded jazz standards, pop songs, Disney tunes, and even recorded with guitarist extraordinaire Bucky Pizzarelli. She left the military in 2016 and truly began to focus on her singing career And contributions through jazz education.
But this new album, Sky Blossom, is enough to make the jazz world sit up and take notice. From Clifford Brown tunes to Anthony Newley to the Gershwins to Miles Davis to Thelonious Monk And more, she shows her jazz mastery of interpretation and performance. She is extraordinary. She is joined by a phenomenal big band under the musical direction of Scott Arcangel.
The album is kicked off by Clifford Brown’s Joy Spring. The lyrics are by Jezra Kaye and Alexis takes complete ownership of the piece. John Castleman contributes a terrific trumpet solo and the band is on fire from the start in this Scott Arcangel arrangement.
Anthony Newley’s Pure Imagination is a supremely well-known song that was featured in the movie Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. “I love the message of this song, that the only limitation to your reality is your ability to imagine it,” said Alexis in the liner notes of her album. Bob Sheppard gives a remarkable solo on saxophone and the results are enough to make you forget any previous version you ever heard.
George and Ira Gershwin’s How Long Has This Been Going on follows Ann must surely be considered one of the highlights of the album. Rich and sultry are only two of the definitive phrases to describe Alexis’ rendering of this song. It is worth hearing over and over again. And then comes All Blues by Miles Davis and Oscar Brown, Jr. The vocal range is staggering in itself and the Scott Arcangel arrangement contains wonderful surprises. Listen for the alto sax solo from Derrick James of the West Point Band.
The Gershwins are represented again in the classic Our Love Is Here to Stay. The big band delivery adds punch and power that we didn't know was missing. This one deserves repeated listening, as well.
John Lennon's Across the Universe is probably my favorite Beatles song of all time and Alexis takes the music to heart and interprets it with an application to herself. Again, the Arcangel arrangement is superb, giving hints of both gospel and guru. Limitless, undying love which shines across me like a million suns it calls me on and on across the universe is my favorite lyric ever written and Alexis just owns it. Only the piano and cymbals accompany her on the line and the purely vocal delivery is marvelous.
Thelonious Monk’s How I Wish was given lyrics by Jon Hendricks and Alexis was given the lyric from Hendricks himself. Alexis takes these melancholy lyrics on top of the exquisite piano and the lament is palpable. It is Scott Arcangel who plays piano on this Mike Reifenberger arrangement. Gorgeous all around. Hendricks also contributed the lyrics for Gigi Grace’s Social Call. Alexis and Hendricks have a connection that begs for more performances and recordings.
Let me be honest. I'm not a Billy Joel fan. Never have been. But he does right songs that others have reimagined and reinterpreted to phenomenal results. New York State of Mind is one such song. I recall hearing Melissa Etheridge perform it at the Grammys many years ago and I thought she had offered the definitive version of the song. Until now. Alexis takes the song and takes complete possession of it. Her voice, her delivery, her interpretation of the song is something amazing.
The album wraps up with Gene Sheers’ American Anthem. This was one of the songs that concluded Alexis’ tour of duty in 2015. The lyrics of the song were quoted in President Biden's 2021 inaugural address. It is the only song on the album that is accompanied only by solo piano. That in itself gives it a warm and meaningful aspect that is only enhanced by Alexis’ vocals. What a fine way to conclude an album.
Alexis Cole’s Sky Blossom (a term used to describe and open parachute in descent) is a fabulous album. From the arrangements to the song selection, it creates the undeniably perfect platform for Alexis Cole to show her artistry and mastery. The big band sound and the gorgeous vocals are what every Jazz fan longs for. This is an album worth hearing over and over and over.
~Travis Rogers, Jr. is The Jazz Owl
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