Singer-pianist Christie Winn, a performer who crackles with spontaneity, pushes Closer to Home into every corner of her craft. Her deft ability to sound both quiet and strong, rhythmic and yet lucid, soulful and still multi-dimensional makes the album a consistently engaging delight.
Winn opens with “Here Comes the Misery” and a searching vocal duet alongside guitarist Steve Bissinger. Even when joined by the rest of the band, called the Lowdowns, the song retains this darkly mysterious atmosphere — a combination of jazz music’s syncopations and blues music’s direct emotional approach. Winn’s assertive piano work underscores this dichotomy, recalling at times like the rolling 88s of Otis Spann and at others like the pounding majesty Oscar Peterson.
“The Profound Song,” with a knowing wink from cowriters Bissinger and Winn, sorts through the archetypical moments that make up a life — most of them decidedly unprofound, of course — while giving Winn a chance to explore a broader vocal range. She sings with a robust, unmannered joy, the polar opposite of the controlled, whispery danger of the initial track on Closer to Home. Joel Behrman, meanwhile, adds these stinging blasts of brass, even as bassist Daniel Fabricant and drummer Jim Bove enthusiastically swing, something that serves to open up the record’s sonic palette.
All of the songs were written by Winn and/or Bissinger, save for Winn’s cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues” — a snappy, jazz-infused update. Winn tosses aside the original’s dark sense of resignation over the ills of this world in favor of a series of spirited rebukes. Saxophonist Joe Cohen adds a bluesy brawn, performing right alongside the vocal like a call-and-response.
Winn’s melancholic piano signature on her composition “Belle of the Ball” dials down the tempo with the quickness of a closing iris. It may be the prettiest tell-off song ever committed to disc. She then switches to a desolate sounding Wurlitzer for the emotionally arousing “Sweetest Surprise,” a song that sounds like a heart breaking in two. Bissinger and Fabricant are perfect foils, as Winn shares an intimate lyric about longing, as they add a series of spacious effects on the guitar and acoustic bass.
Behrman returns for a salacious turn on the trombone during the brilliantly calibrated “Words Move Too Slow,” this slinky blues that at times recalls Little Willie John’s “Fever.” So perfectly in sync is Winn with the Lowdowns that when she sings “the good bass line singing low,” the group hits a stair-stepped descending pattern that perfectly echoes her words. From there, Winn goes even deeper into the lyric — taking her voice into a hound-dog growl. It’s a virtuoso performance from all involved.
“Floating Away,” with a memorably effective turn on the brushes by Bove, expertly reflects the song’s fluttering theme. Winn’s “Will to Fall” comes tumbling out next, adroitly shifting gears into an insistent groove — both from the singer and the song. Back at the Wurlitzer, Winn adds the kind of dramatic colorings long associated with Joe Zawinul during Miles Davis’ initial experiments with electric jazz. Geoff Brennan sits in on bass for both “Will to Fall,” as well as three other tracks including “Bliss,” a savory, deeply sensual subsequent duet with Winn.
“Wish” explores a lilting pop sensibility, but without losing the smart rhythms of jazz. “Tiny Tune,” the first of two consecutive tracks written by Bissinger alone, is a touching instrumental that finds Winn switching to a lonesome melodica. It’s reminiscent, in a way, with some of Pat Metheny’s more contemplative solo offerings. Bissinger then rips off a series of controlled, bluesy riffs on “Lazy Sunday,” even smartly mimicking Winn’s “tick tock” phrase. Winn, meanwhile, switches back to the Wurlitzer, but this time settles into a tangy R&B groove. That makes the darkly undulating Brazilian rhythms of Caetano Veloso’s “Sou Seu Sabia,” the album’s other cover, all the more distinctive. Joseph Hebert adds a ruminative cello interlude, as Winn expertly handles the lyric in its original tongue.
Finally, there’s “Por Favor,” a Winn original that she sings and performs alone. It brings Closer to Home to surprisingly quiet, affecting conclusion — and illustrates, once more, the breadth and depth of her talents.