Donna Greenberg – Mav’rik (2012)

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Photograph by John Patric Price

Mav’rik lives up to its title from the first, as Donna Greenberg does that most unusual of things — populate a jazz singer’s album with 12 original compositions.

Eschewing what has become the tried, true and finally badly bedraggled habit that most have of trotting out Gershwin, Porter and such, Greenberg instead puts the “songwriter” part back into singer-songwriter, and the results are heartfelt, powerful and direct.

Greenberg opens with “The Language of Love,” singing with a dark intrigue over a lightly swinging signature from pianist Jordan Klapman, percussionist Arturo Avalos, flautist Tom Skublics and trumpeter Jon Seiger. Sultry and inviting, the song swings with a perfectly conveyed restraint. The subsequent “You’re My Summer Peach,” with its spry Dixieland banjo, couldn’t be further away from those crepuscular moods. Seiger adds a humorous Louis Armstrong-esque vocal, and a bit of old-time piano on this sun-filled delight.

Such are the outsized aspirations of Greenberg for this album that it not only moves from one such disparate genre to the other, even from one language to another, but does so with a smooth confidence.

Elsewhere, the propulsively upbeat “La Nina de Rosa” lends Mav’rik this Latin-inspired festival atmosphere, as the Canadian songstress expertly shifts to a fleet Spanish lyric. Avalos is a whirlwind of percussive accents, even as Skublics adds alto, baritone and tenor saxes to Seiger’s glinting tandem trumpet. Moments later, Aaron Solomon’s ruminative contributions on violin delicately underscore Greenberg’s vocal on “There Was a Time,” imbuing it with deeper shadings of velvety lament.

Greenberg displays a gospel-steeped fervor on “Praise Be,” easily outshining a muscular chorus of background vocalists that includes Klapman and multi-instrumentalist Tony Quarrington. Greenberg matches, and then soars past Quarrington’s subsequent guitar solo, its own blues-soaked delight. Solomon then grabs a fiddle for the rollicking bluegrass-inspired “Old Country Road,” and Greenberg — scooting and hooting through a down-home theme — once more shifts musical categories with an ease that would shame most vocalists.

“My Tearless Grief,” almost on cue now, turns Mav’rik in another direction still, as Greenberg switches to a lower vocal register to match a lyric of twilit poignancy. Skublics eventually joins the proceedings with a smoky tenor solo, but nothing can take away from Greenberg’s quiver-inducing, heartbreaking presence at the center of the song. Even as her last line is still fading (“now, you’re … gone”), Mav’rik has already changed gears yet again, as the Portuguese mysteries of “O Amado Coracao” begin to unfold. “The Spingtime of Our Love,” though it breaks no new ground lyrically, has a similarly engaging old world feel, courtesy of Denis Keldie’s deeply nostalgic turn on the accordion.

Unfortunately, as with many such multi-layered affairs, Mav’rik sometimes falls short of its own lofty ambitions: “Nature’s Glory,” despite a series of nice assists by Quarrington, doesn’t do enough to distinguish itself from a wonder-of-the-outdoors theme that’s become all too familiar. Meanwhile, “I Just Wanna Cry” returns to the sweet soul that first appeared as part of “Praise Be,” but this time goes deeper into the low levee moans of the Mississippi Delta. Greenberg approaches the lyric with an oaken, suggestive sensuality — but she’s not a natural blues singer, and this song (despite some saucy moments from Klapman, Skublics and Quarrington) misses the mark because of it.

That said, Mav’rik gathers itself nicely, nevertheless, for its deeply emotional finale in “Berceuse,” a stirring lullaby shared this time partially in French. Quarrington’s atmospheric contributions only add to the sense of sweet contentment, as the album draws to a close within a moment of lasting quietude and grace.

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Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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