Julia Dollison has put out her first CD, Observatory. I wrote the liner notes:
“There’s this singer I want you to meet. She’s really, really good.” I must hear at least three variations per month on that tired old theme, but when Maria Schneider spoke those words to me five years ago, I took them seriously. What kind of jazz singer, I asked myself, would be interesting enough to catch the ear of the outstanding big-band composer of her generation?
Here’s the answer.
It starts with the voice: warm, airy, dappled with summer sunshine, technically bulletproof from top to bottom. (Check out those honking low notes in “Your Mind Is on Vacation.”) Such voices are born, not made, and Julia Dollison has one. Yet she never coasts on her chops. Instead, she sings like a horn player in love with lyrics, the way Lester Young knew all the words to every ballad he played. Her solos are pointed and meaningful, little musical stories that take you to places you’ve never been.
Then comes the style, an alchemical blend of jazz and pop that makes Harold Arlen and Rufus Wainwright sound not like strange bedfellows but the oldest of friends. Don’t call it “fusion,” though: that might smack of calculation, and there’s nothing calculated about Julia’s singing. She grew up listening to all kinds of music, and now she just sings what she hears, naturally and unselfconsciously.
Did I mention the arrangements? Actually, that’s not quite the right word for her root-and-branch deconstructions of standards. They pass through her mind like light through a prism, emerging refracted and transformed. “In a Mellotone” is nudged into a joltingly ironic minor key, while “Night and Day” is superimposed atop a Coltrane-like harmonic steeplechase. “All the Things You Are” becomes a spacious, Latin-flavored soundscape decorated with the pastel washes of overdubbed vocals that are Julia’s trademark.
Her own beautifully crafted songs contain the same surprising twists and turns, and their presence here, far from being an indulgence, is an indispensable part of the large-scale compositional scheme of Observatory. For this is no mere string of unrelated tunes but a painstakingly wrought musical self-portrait, one whose organic unity is embodied in the sonic collage with which the album begins. Its meaning is revealed bit by bit and song by song, then made fully manifest at the end, like Rosebud in Citizen Kane.
It says a lot about Julia that she chose to record her first album not with a supportive, semi-anonymous journeyman pianist but in the perilously fast company of Ben Monder, the avant-garde jazz guitarist whose obliquely tilted solos have long been one of the brightest colors in Maria Schneider’s palette. Monder is a major instrumental voice in and of his own right, and his powerfully individual playing could easily have blown a lesser singer right out of the studio. Instead, Julia floats serenely above it like a morning star, wafted aloft by the propulsive yet thoughtful interplay of Matt Clohesy and Ted Poor.
As I watched Observatory take shape, I thought, This isn’t going to be your ordinary debut album. And sure enough, it isn’t. Julia Dollison has something arrestingly new to say. Listen and marvel.
To order Observatory or listen online to excerpts, go here.