Beth Duncan – Come the Fall (2012)

Beth Duncan’s Come the Fall isn’t the purpled and foreboding project that its title might suggest. If anything, it’s exactly the opposite: An album that’s so sun-filled, so magnificently idyllic, that it only stumbles when Duncan takes on material that doesn’t showcase her essential love-struck whimsy.

Her title track here is a perfect example. The first of a trio of originals from Martine Tabilio, “Come the Fall” finds Duncan luxuriating within a breezy rhythm, one that exudes an autumnal gold. Tenor saxophonist Mike Mullen’s sweet, rounded interlude only adds to the sense of easy-going joy. It may be cold outside, but there’s no wind that’s chilly enough to penetrate this song’s essential warmth. “Wish I May,” another Tabilio original, follows – with guitarist Steve Homan, who also assisted Duncan with arrangements, taking a central role. Drummer Guy Kowarsh switches to the brushes, giving the tune a frisky propulsion. Duncan, meanwhile, handles the lyric with a spry hopefulness. Homan’s solo has a plucky energy too, moving from the groove of Wes Montgomery and to the old-school swing of Herb Ellis.

“How High the Moon,” the pre-war Broadway tune turned jazz standard by Benny Goodman, is given a rumbling new percussive signature. Duncan enters the tune all alone – a singing across her range, from brightly amorous to whisperingly cute – even as bassist Bill Douglass and Homan trade a series of well-conceived, icy cool asides. McMullen switches to the flute for a fleet run through Royce Campbell’s “I’m On a Cloud,” with Duncan matching his runs note for thrilling note through the song’s mid-section. A pair of Johnny Mercer tunes are also spruced up nicely: First, “Moon River,” the warhorse co-written with Henry Mancini, is transformed by Homan’s searching guitar, and a darkly emotional vocal turn by Duncan. Mercer’s “I Thought About You,” composed with Jimmy van Heusen, is goosed along by these air-tight syncopations between Kowarsh, Douglass and Homan. Duncan meets the challenge, swinging hard – even while giving away none of her romantic power.

Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Quiet Nights” begins as an angular showcase for Homan before a feather-light polyrhythm signals Duncan’s entrance. (Percussionists Babatunde Lea and Brian Kendrick are like secret weapons on Come the Fall, adding these interesting colors throughout.) Homan fills in between each verse, almost like a series of winks, as Duncan goes into her lowest, most sultry register. She stays right there for the Tabilio’s “No Rhyme or Reason,” a moment of quiet resiliency bolstered by tenor man Mullen.

Less compelling is their take on “Giant Steps.” Homan added lyrics to John Coltrane’s instrumental standard, but its constantly rising theme isn’t the best platform for Duncan. This difficult song was simply never destined to be a singer’s showcase. On the other hand, the zippy Lerner and Loewe number “Almost Like Being in Love,” familiar though it may be, fits Duncan’s sunny disposition like a tailored piece of eveningwear. She makes easy work of its pixie-dusted narrative, while Mullen pushes all the way out to the edge of his horn’s sound. Homan soon joins in, riffing and then running toward Duncan’s heady concluding coo. She scats with similar ease on “Give Me the Simple Life,” once a wonderful vehicle for Ella Fitzgerald. Douglass’ funky thump gives Duncan plenty of room to move around inside the Gershwins’ “Embraceable You,” and she takes full advantage there, too – handling the lyric and then a thrilling wordless interlude with a charming finesse.

However, their too-sunny take on Tadd Dameron’s “If You Could See Me Now,” originally written with Sarah Vaughan in mind, is another rare misstep. Reformulated around Homan’s guitar, the song can’t match the turbulent sadness that Vaughan brought to the original – and, quite frankly, doesn’t work as an uplifting anthem. This was an instance in which Duncan could have used a little roughening up around the edges.

Still, Come the Fall finishes on a high note – and all is forgiven. “Wish Me a Rainbow,” with a series of curly-cue runs by Mullen on the flute, is a lavishly romantic send off.

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Nick DeRiso

Over a 30-year career, Nick DeRiso has also explored music for USA Today, All About Jazz, Ultimate Classic Rock 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 nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Contact him at nderiso@somethingelsereviews.com.