Perhaps the most captivating out of many captivating things found on Taeko Fukao’s Wonderland is the choices the Japanese-born, New York-based songstress makes. Listening to her pour herself into this set of arrangements is a marvel, with her note and tone selections transforming each piece into her very own.
Wonderland is Taeko’s third album. Here, she is joined by a crackerjack outfit that includes Doug Carn (piano), Lonnie Plaxico (bass) and Victor Jones (drums). Vocalist Giacomo Gates makes an appearance, while Stacy Dillard’s saxophone features on three tracks. Guitarist Kevin McNeal is also featured.
The record opens with a rendition of “Old Devil Moon,” a tune that has commenced many a live show for Taeko. After Jones sets the stage with a swift roll, the band collects and the world of Wonderland is off and running. Taeko’s choices are enthralling, with her alto stretching out notes and her spicy personality adding flavour and punch. That personality burns through again on “Foolin’ Myself,” a number performed by the likes of Billie Holiday and Shirley Horn. Taeko’s stamp on it is once again ensconced in choices, with pops from the musicians augmenting her natural swagger. Carn’s piano solo digs in at just the right moment.
Another sizzler is “Softly, As In a Morning Sunrise.” This joint allows Taeko plenty of space to show off her scat-singing. She climbs right along with the track’s blazing 4/4 and sticks in when Jones’ drum solo threatens to go off the rails. Her vocals show no cracks, especially as the runaway train flashes through the station in its raring closing explosion.
When Wonderland gears down, Taeko is even better. Her tenderness and subtle note selection reigns on “If You Could See Me Now,” a beautiful duet with Gates. The piece has a classic feel about it. It takes its time, patiently regarding the notes and textures as it floats under gauzy skies. And Dillard’s tenor is the perfect touch.
There’s also “Lullaby of Takeda – I Wanna Go Home,” a tune that finds Taeko gracing listeners with several verses in Japanese. This is one of the best songs on the record. It melds the traditional Japanese music that was Taeko’s first love American jazz in a way that invigorates as it provokes. Carn’s ivory flourishes glide alongside the rolling percussion and Plaxico’s dazzlingly textured bass playing.
Wonderland wouldn’t be complete without a version of “What a Wonderful World,” of course, and Taeko delivers. Once again, it’s the choices that stand out. Not only does this rendition pack a Brazilian essence, but the vocalist’s spacing is extraordinary beside the jogging gait. Consider how she pauses after “thinking to herself,” for instance.
A record full of these wise decisions, Taeko’s third album is certainly another treat for listeners. It’s exciting and pensive, expansive and warm, a true statement of artistic intent from one of New York’s most gifted and adventurous vocalists.
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