The Wall Street Journal
‘This Bitter Earth’ by Veronica Swift Review: Dysfunction, Danger and Dependency
The singer’s latest album presents jazz numbers from the past century as statements about the world today.
By Will Friedwald
March 16, 2021
I first heard Veronica Swift when, shortly after she placed second at the 2015 Thelonious Monk jazz vocal competition, she came into New York’s Iguana restaurant and dance lounge accompanied by her parents (singer Stephanie Nakasian and the now-late pianist Hod O’Brien) and sang informally with Vince Giordano and his Nighthawks. It was apparent to all of us there—and has become so to everyone who has heard her since (especially at Birdland, her current New York home base)—that this young woman was a phenomenon. She has a miraculous voice, musical ability and technique, as well as an innate gift for entertaining a crowd.
The most impressive aspect of Ms. Swift’s talent at that first hearing was her unique capacity for wordless improvisation. Most scat singing over the past 50 years has been rote exhibitionism, a cheap thrill that puts hip listeners to sleep. But Ms. Swift—who might be the best scat singer since Ella Fitzgerald, Anita O’Day, Sarah Vaughan and Mel Tormé —tells wordless stories that make perfect sense musically and dramatically. Her nonverbal flights of fancy have real emotional resonance and narrative thrust, with beginnings, middles and ends.
On her new studio recording, “This Bitter Earth”—out March 19 from Mack Avenue (her second album from a major jazz label)—the 26-year-old shows an awareness that scat singing is most effective in live performances (Fitzgerald and O’Day rarely employed the technique on their studio albums). So she primarily focuses on traditional lyric interpretation—and shows that her gifts for musical storytelling have also expanded exponentially over the past few years.
Each of the 13 songs here are essentially individual essays in a larger statement about the world today, often achieved by taking a look at the past through the lens of song. The opening—and title—track, introduced in 1959 by Dinah Washington, perfectly encapsulates the current pandemic moment, especially as begun by an intriguingly spare piano part from the brilliant Emmet Cohen, who’s usually more of a maximalist. The string arrangement by Steven Feifke also seems informed by the new setting for Washington’s own vocal composed by Max Richter (for the film “Shutter Island”), which transformed an already melancholy ballad into something exceedingly mournful, almost dirge-like. The other numbers, some of which go back nearly a hundred years, generally depict dysfunction, dangerous romantic obsession, unhealthily codependent relationships, and, as described in a line from the final song, “Sing,” “All the world’s history gradually dying of shock.”
In several tracks, Ms. Swift essentially re-enacts highly dated attitudes, ranging from the charming “How Lovely to Be a Woman” to the intensely pathological “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss).” Most songs here are from musical theater and benefit from the added lyrical and harmonic depth characteristic of the better showtunes.
Two Broadway numbers by Rodgers and Hammerstein, “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” and “Getting to Know You,” although they’re from different shows, complement each other perfectly. The first is about the inability of the races of mankind to get along with one another, while the other describes how people from different backgrounds can, in fact, unite and find their common humanity.
After nearly a century, “The Man I Love” still seems altogether wholesome—only the most extreme exponent of political correctness would find fault with it. But “Prisoner of Love,” “As Long as He Needs Me” and “You’re the Dangerous Type” (which features Ms. Swift’s only long scat solo here) are considerably more troubling tales of female subjugation. “Everybody Has the Right to Be Wrong” celebrates the wisdom of admitting to a lack of knowledge, not thinking we know everything. Dave Frishberg’s “The Sports Page” underscores how even though everything else in the newspaper is beyond comprehension, there’s at least one section where the winners and losers stand out in uncomplicated black and white. “Trust in Me,” which opens with Ms. Swift vocalizing wordlessly in harmony with Aaron Johnson’s bass flute, is the most ironic song of them all, since it’s sung from the perspective of a character who is not to be trusted in the least.
With “Sing,” Ms. Swift transforms a song by the contemporary pop duo the Dresden Dolls into an anthem (combining elements of jazz, rock, soul and folk) for the current Covid-19 moment. It opens with a mention of a “thing that’s like touching except you don’t touch,” and even though we are told “life is no cabaret,” it’s plain that the act of singing serves as a kind of secular prayer here, in the spirit of John Lennon’s “Imagine.” It’s as good a job of reconciling the past and the present as I have ever heard, and goes a lot further than anything else I’ve encountered in the past 12 months toward making sense out of a world gone wacko.
—Mr. Friedwald writes about music and popular culture for the Journal.
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