Pam Saulsby – The Full Measure of a Woman (2011)

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Her album is populated with songs we’ve heard too often, sung in front of a band that’s bland and not engaging. It’s a lot for Pam Saulsby to overcome, but she does, and she does it with vigor.

Saulsby starts all alone alongside a limber bass line, in one of the few stand-out instrumental moments on The Full Measure of a Woman, and proceeds to imbue the Little Willie John/Peggy Lee classic “Fever” with a bracing, stripped-down attitude. There’s an unforgettable moment when Saulsby repeats “oh, what a lovely way to burn,” adding a steamy sensuality. She then bounces through Irving Berlin’s “Cheek to Cheek,” singing with a pianistic delight. The song is fleshed out with a broad array of lightly swinging instrumentation, but Saulsby is still the most interesting part of the ensemble. Some of the horn parts sound so tinny as to resemble synthesizers, something that’s beneath a singer of Saulsby’s talents. Nevertheless, she has a musician’s rhythm, and treats the lyric with a joyous wonder.

Her take on “Fly Me To The Moon,” definitively done in 1961 by Nat “King” Cole with George Shearing, is smartly reconstructed as a mid-tempo rhythmic piece. This gives Saulsby an opportunity to sing a series of interlocking lines with the bass, and then playfully tussle with the keyboardist. She soars to the finale. “As Time Goes By,” one of the more shopworn tracks here, is presented as an appropriately low-key ballad, complete with swelling strings. She does her best to own the lyric, sounding something like Ella Fitzgerald during a sweetly conveyed middle verse, but this song has too many miles on it to go very far as a vehicle for Saulsby’s rich talents. Things aren’t helped by a sleepy turn on the saxophone that seems to curl up at Saulsby’s feet like a pet.

More interesting is the guitar-driven “Besame Mucho,” the 1940s-era Spanish language song that was made popular again five years ago by Andrea Bocelli. Saulsby sings the tune in its native tongue, slipping into a silken lower register that sounds as mysterious as it does inviting. The guitar remains for a challenging rethinking of “California Dreamin,’” the 1965 hit that defines the world’s memory of the Mamas and the Papas. Saulsby slows the song down, giving her a chance to really inhabit the theme. Whereas the original conveyed a stirring sense of loneliness, here it’s a quieter, more deeply damaging lament. The sense of loss in Saulsby’s version is devastating. When the tune catches a second gear, powered by the fine flourishes from guitarist Raul Midon, Saulsby leaps into a terrific scat-like rhythm right alongside him. She’s talented enough to do both with equal energy and effectiveness.

Saulsby, a long-time news broadcaster based out of Raleigh, North Carolina, then ups the attitude on “Peel Me a Grape,” the 1962 Dave Frishberg nugget. Her transformation from dusky melancholy to fast-talking tough girl is quick and complete. “Hop when I holler; skip when I snap,” she purrs, with a Catwoman-level menace. “When I say do it, jump to it!” She pulls off this new don’t-mess-with-this stance with aplomb.

For all of her frank and surprising openness, Saulsby is no shrinking violet. Instead, she sounds like the complete package, a singer who can do most anything, which she’d have to be to get much out of the well-worn closing track, “Cry Me a River.” Since Arthur Hamilton wrote it for Fitzgerald in 1953, the tune has been covered countless times, with versions spanning the generations between Julie London and Michael Buble. Saulsby adds a finely wrought drama. The story is the same, of course: A former lover laments having been so emotionally involved with a cold and distant lover, but, there’s something new, a modern edge of anger and Saulsby pushing back against sadness. The guitar solo, quietly unremarkable, is only a pesky interruption for what ends up, somehow, being a tour-de-force finale.

That Saulsby can make so much out of so little shows the exceptional nature of her vocal skills.

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