Dallas, Texas-based Laura Ainsworth, though performing last-century throwback cocktail jazz, may have stumbled into a zeitgeist-defining moment with the opening title track here. Whether she knew it or not back in the recording studio, Ainsworth’s delicious tale of revenge exacted on a serial philanderer is perfectly of the moment in this period of celebrity male misdeed from the likes of Tiger Woods, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Anthony Weiner.
Singing in a satiny, impossibly old-fashioned, nearly three-octave voice, Ainsworth is the very portrait of West Coast cool. Credit the able assist provided by keyboardist Brian Piper, who also works as a producer on the project and lent his regular working trio to provide the crisp, understated musical setting.
Unfortunately, “While the Music Plays On,” the more conventional sax-driven second track on Keep It To Yourself, can’t match that kind of ripped-from-the-headlines immediacy. And the album mostly continues along that vein, often settling for a comfy nostalgia that never quite reaches the same fizzy melding of old and new.
That’s not to say it all isn’t very charming, or to take anything away from Ainsworth’s facility as an urbane chanteuse. No, she sings the heck out of these songs — from the Liza-ish “April Fooled Me,” to her plucky pirouette around a clarinet on “Dream a Little Dream of Me” and “He’s So Unusual,” to the sassy Rosemary Clooney-influenced “That’s the Kind of Guy I Dream of.” And it’s not even that these are simply tried-and-trues, the kind of all-but-worn-out standards that have become part and parcel of the dog-eared so-called American songbook. Instead, “That’s the Kind of Guy” is actually an unreleased Nat “King” Cole side that was last widely heard as a Betty Hutton b-side back in 1952. Helen Kane’s “He’s So Unusual” goes even further back, to 1928.
There’s just a different fun explorative kick, however, to tracks like “La Vie En Rose,” where Ainsworth stomps on the gas after a pillowy French ballad-style opening, skipping into a fun 1930s-era Parisian jazz rhythm — complete with an imaginative turn by violinist Milo Deering of the jazz/bluegrass fusion group Beatlegras. Piper and Co. also bring an interesting Pat Metheny-esque modernity to “Fantastic Planet of Love,” offering an album-closing glimpse of what Ainsworth would sound like outside the arid confines of post-war cliches.
Elsewhere, though, Ainsworth plays it straight on “Love For Sale,” and the results are sensual, appropriately done, but nowhere near as intriguing. “Personality” has a winking sensibility, but its broad cabaret style doesn’t give her talent enough credit. It’s too cute by half. And, of course, Ainsworth has no trouble with the Ella Fitzgerald gem “Midnight Sun.” After all, she grew up around this smoothly ingratiating style of music; her father was renowned big band performer/arranger Billy Ainsworth, who accompanied legends like Fitzgerald and Tony Bennett. Still, the younger Ainsworth should know better than most how difficult it is to match not just Ella’s dizzying talent but her memorable gumption. This one, again, feels too safe.
That said, Ainsworth goes on to pull off perhaps the biggest surprise of all on Keep It To Yourself, an update that emerges as the transcendent moment every singer hopes for when they dig out one of those dusty, decades-old favorites. It arrives in the form of “Skylark,” a been-there, done-that warhorse from Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer. Working in much the same way as her musical heroes once did, Ainsworth recorded the tune live in a single take. Perhaps just as importantly, though, she did so in a fresh new format – alongside jazz guitarist Chris Derose, a regular accompanist for Willie Nelson and Michael Feinstein. The results are devastatingly beautiful, nakedly honest, and a powerful argument for the ageless compositions that Ainsworth so clearly treasures.
She’s not wrong to love them. She’s just got to remember to keep goosing them into a new age.
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