Lena Seikaly, Looking Back (Seikaly)
In her third album, the Washington DC singer applies her mezzo-soprano, swing, taste and pure intonation to 10 songs written between 1918 and 1939, with a futuristic side trip to 1950 and Duke Ellington’s “Love You Madly.” She scats her way into the Ellington anthem, which, until Ms. Seikaly got hold of it, was pretty much under the sole ownership of Ella Fitzgerald and Joe Williams. The performance is a duet with bassist Zack Pride. He walks her briskly along and takes a brief, impressive solo. Her scatting is based not on the unfocused desire to be hip that leads so many inexperienced singers to grief, but on fidelity to harmonic principles.
In another duet, with pianist Chris Grasso, she uses a superb sense of dynamics to explore the sense of loss and wracking emotion in Irving Berlin’s “Suppertime.” When guitarist Paul Pieper and drummer Lenny Robinson make the band a quintet on the Gershwins’ “Fascinating Rhythm” and Layton and Creamer’s “After You’ve Gone,” the sentiment is exhilaration. Any singer electing to interpret “I Cover the Waterfront” has Billie Holiday looking over her shoulder. Ms. Seikaly avoids imitation. Indeed, she achieves the individuality that Ms. Holiday was known to urge on singers who tried to sound like her. This video was shot as she recorded the song.
If Ms. Seikaly’s treatment of superior songs from the 1920s and ‘30s encourages other young singers to adapt what many of them may consider ancient material, good for her. Good for them. Good for us.