John Nowak – Once More with Feeling (2013)

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The question, of course, is whether any more feeling can be wrung from these age-old standards, so many times have they been done. John Nowak’s answer on Once More with Feeling? Absolutely.

The Maine-based vocalist opens with Victor Young’s “Stella by Starlight,” swinging with an unfettered, West Coast urbanity. Guitarist Josh Small offers a tastefully executed solo, perfectly in keeping with the silky smooth sophistication surrounding him, while rhythmnists Wellington Gordon and Bobby Duron settle into a lithe, inviting cadence. The results point to everything Once More with Feeling hopes to be: Approachable, and utterly timeless.

Nowak sings with the determined focus of someone who’s returned to an old lover, having realized what he had only after it was gone. And, in many ways, that’s precisely the way this long-awaited music project unfolded. Nowak worked as a singer and trumpeter for years, before deciding to settle into a workaday life in 1990. But after a couple of decades toiling as a physician’s assistant, Nowak felt the tug of music pulling him back. He began anew by appearing with the Unified Jazz Ensemble, based in the Baltimore-Washington D.C. area, before a move to Bangor led to this current musical collaboration.

The time away only deepened his passion for these songbook standards, and it shows – in the way Nowak grabs the lyric by the throat on upbeat numbers here, but also in the way he lets loose on the ballads. (He also shares piano duties with Lincoln Blake.) Throughout, Nowak’s reach never exceeds his grasp. He just as apt to channel the sweetly conveyed innocence of Chet Baker, as on Cole Porter’s “Night and Day” – with its curlicue lines from Small – as he is the sensuous charm of Mel Torme on Rodgers and Hart’s “My Funny Valentine.” Elsewhere, Nowak follows along with a smooth confidence as Erroll Garner’s “Misty” makes its familiar emotional rise. Mark Tasker, who appears throughout on trumpet and flugelhorn, adds a fizzy playfulness. (The album becomes a tour-de-force moment for Tasker, really, as he completes “All of Me” with a sharply expressive turn, then cries with a very real sense of heartbreak on “My Funny Valentine.) They hit a crisp groove on Johnny Mercer’s “Autumn Leaves,” pushed along by a tough little riff from Small and these brisk asides from Gordon.

Al Dubin’s “September in the Rain” skips along like a coin across a puddle, while the John Blackburn composition “Moonlight in Vermont” is presented with a hushed confidentiality. Nowak winks his way through “All of Me,” composed by the team of Seymour Simons-Gerald Marks, then displays an intriguing Michael Franks influence on the old Dean Martin vehicle “You’re Nobody ’Til Somebody Loves You.” George David Weiss’ “What A Wonderful World” is similarly associated with one artist, and Nowak can’t quite wrest this tune from the memory of Louis Armstrong – but that probably says more about Armstrong’s ability to own a lyric than anything else. Joe Young’s “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter” gets things back on track, as Nowak completely inhabits an impishly humorous lyric. Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Corcovado” – better known in the states as “Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars” – fits with a similar snugness, as Nowak’s backing group provides a twilit atmosphere for his limpid, deeply ingratiating reading.

Gordon takes centerstage, if ever so briefly, on Dorothy Fields’ “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” – offering a sophisticated introductory signature before Nowak and Co. join in the swinging fun. While the singer tip toes through the ageless lyric, the rest of Gordon’s bandmates join him, one by one, until the song is rattling along at a joyous pace. Herman Hupfeld’s “As Time Goes By” may be one of the most broken-down warhorses here, yet Nowak never waivers in his commitment to the material. He then closes Once More with Feeling with a note-perfect, hat-tipping farewell in the form of “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” smiling his way through another effervescent Fields lyric.

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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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