Tuesday, July 29, 2008


By Alyssa Graham
Sunnyside/Walrus Records

There is always something alluring about newly unearthed lost manuscripts or heretofore unknown sessions tapes that keep turning up in the vaults. Alyssa Graham’s sophomore release, Echo, on-sale today, has a similar appeal in a song originally penned for Billie Holiday, but shelved by writer Jack Reardon after her untimely death for close to fifty years, until he eventually heard Graham.

Reardon’s “Involved Again” frankly does not rank as a lost masterpiece of a song, but it could have been something special had Holiday lived to record it. Its bittersweet hopefulness would have perfectly suited Holiday’s expressive, world-weary voice, perfectly fitting the intersection of romantic sentiment and existential anguish, which nobody represented better than Lady Day.

Graham’s rendition is quite pretty, but she (fortunately) lacks the accumulated experiences Holiday would have brought to the song. At least on this release, it sounds like she has a greater affinity for the kind of jazz-influenced pop (or vice versa) that propelled Norah Jones’ meteoric rise. However, Graham displays greater range here, with a stronger voice. (Fair warning: more Jones references are likely to follow.)

The initial track, Simon & Garfunkle’s “America” shows her facility with pop standards, here given a particularly lush arrangement. Although only getting brief solo space, Gregoire Maret’s harmonica (previously heard with the likes of Pat Metheny and Marcus Miller) adds interesting sonic textures to the track, much like Toots Thielemans work on Quincy Jones’ soundtracks.

Graham’s sultry cooing of Sting’s “I Burn for You,” also takes the familiar hit to an interesting place, as the jazz rhythm section of pianist Jon Cowherd, bassist Doug Weiss, and drummer Obed Calvaire slowly build to a crescendo. Graham most invites comparison with Norah Jones on some of Echo’s originals, like the dreamy romanticism of “Pictures of You,” and the country-jazz-pop of “My Love.”

Graham herself travelled widely in Brazil and has guitarist Romero Lubambo on the session, so not surprisingly there is also a hint of the Brazilian on Echo. It fully blooms on the concluding tune, “Izaura,” with Cowherd and Lubambo taking nice, if brief solos on the gentle swinger.

Graham has an appealing voice and has chosen some very complimentary arrangements on Echo. Perhaps it is unfortunate that the disk seems to invite comparison to a legend like Holiday and a modern phenomenon like Jones, but at least that is heady company to be likened to. Being the next Billie Holiday will be a tall order for anyone, including Graham, but her vocals could certainly find appeal with Jones’ fans open-minded enough to give something new a spin.