Emilia Mårtensson: Ana

I'll take impeccable taste in vocal styling over histrionic showboating any day of the week, so if you're anything like me you'll find Emilia Mårtensson's sophomore album Ana, which follows 2012's And So It Goes… debut with forty-one minutes of new material by the London-based, Swedish singer, very much to your liking. Describing it as a vocal-based jazz recording isn't inaccurate but hardly the whole story. Yes, Mårtensson's voice is an undeniably virtuosic instrument, even if understatedly deployed, that lends itself naturally to a jazz-like presentation, and the trio supporting her on the album is as limber and flexible as one might expect it would be. But Ana (named after her Slovenian grandmother, by the way) also expands upon the typical vocal jazz date in a number of ways: string textures (courtesy of The Fable String Quartet) are worked into the songs' arrangements, and the set list not only includes Mårtensson originals but covers and a traditional Swedish folk song, too.

There are interesting similarities between Ana and Cassandra Wilson's 1996 album New Moon Daughter: both are song-based collections by female jazz vocalists; both feature versions of “Harvest Moon,” though Mårtensson's is by Jamie Doe and Wilson's is by Neil Young; and just as New Moon Daughter includes a number of cover versions, so too does Ana, with songs by Paul Simon (“Everything Put Together Falls Apart”) and Joe Henderson (“Black Narcissus”) among those featured. Obviously there are key differences, too, foremost among them the difference in vocal style, with Mårtensson's pure, clear-throated tone dramatically unlike Wilson's smoky delivery.

Mårtensson and company bring a stirring performance to “Harvest Moon,” with all of the singer's vocal strengths amply served by the song. Hearing her voice gracefully soar across the swinging base provided by the strings and trio (pianist Barry Green a particular standout) makes for one of the album's greatest pleasures. Though “Harvest Moon” is the track where everything comes together most splendidly, those that follow are hardly second-rate. The title track, which opens with a dreamy wordless vocal episode that calls to mind “Chelsea Bridge,” is memorable for the exquisiteness of her hushed delivery and the subtle manner by which the refined string textures complement her singing (a later reprise offers an additional reminder of the song's charms). Here and elsewhere, The Fable String Quartet's contributions are integrated smoothly into the arrangements, rather than awkwardly as is sometimes the case when such an instrumental blend is attempted.

Given that she sings the traditional folk song “Nar Som Jag Var Pa Mitt Adertonde Ar” (When I Was in my Eighteenth Year) in the original Swedish, one would excuse the average listener for not realizing the lyrics concern a young girl's suicide letter to her parents, even if the song's ponderous musical character might suggest dark subject matter of some kind. Mårtensson elaborates upon “Black Narcissus” by adding original lyrics, a gesture that gives Henderson's piece new life as a folk-jazz vocal setting, while her affection for dramatic pop-ballad material comes to the fore during “Learnt From Love” (Barnaby Keen), “Tomorrow Can Wait” (Emine Pirhasan), and the aforementioned “Everything Put Together Falls Apart,” all of which provide wondrous opportunities for her luxuriant vocal artistry to shine. It would be no exaggeration to characterize Ana as a remarkably accomplished recording whose ambitious scope is satisfyingly realized by all concerned. Many a vocalist could obviously do a whole lot worse than follow Mårtensson's example.

April 2014