A gifted composer in addition to being an expressive vocalist and pianist, Daniela Schächter focuses her attention on a single songwriter for the first time in her career on her fourth album, Vanheusenism: A Tribute to Jimmy Van Heusen (due out September 9). The album features 11 tunes from the pen of Van Heusen, one of the most prolific and celebrated songwriters of the 20th century, along with the title track, written as a tribute by Schächter.
Born in 1913, Jimmy Van Heusen wrote dozens of songs that have become timeless standards, several of which are included herein – including “All the Way,” “Darn That Dream,” “Here’s That Rainy Day,” and “Come Fly With Me.” He was best known for his long association with Frank Sinatra (he rushed Ol’ Blue Eyes to the hospital after Sinatra’s failed suicide attempt in the aftermath of his split with Ava Gardner), his collaborations with lyricist Sammy Cahn providing the titles for several of Sinatra’s classic albums from the late 1950s. But he composed hundreds of songs over the course of his long career, writing for film, television and theater and garnering an Emmy and four Academy Awards.
On Vanheusenism, these songs are reinvigorated by a skilled and deftly communicative band, all longtime associates of Schächter’s. Both tenor saxophonist Mike Tucker and drummer Mark Walker are frequent collaborators in the singer/pianist’s adopted hometown of Boston, where she teaches at Berklee College of Music. Bassist Michael O’Brien, who engages Schächter in a playful, spirited duo version of “Call Me Irresponsible,” enjoyed a lengthy trio stint with her during a residency at the New York City club The Garage.
Born in Sicily, Schächter studied at Berklee College of Music and the Henry Mancini Institute at UCLA. She went on to win Betty Carter’s Jazz Ahead Competition in 2002 and the Mary Lou Williams Jazz Piano Competition in 2005, and has performed with influential artists including the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, Terri Lyne Carrington, Patti Austin, Marian McPartland, Regina Carter, Kevin Mahogany, Christian McBride, Tiger Okoshi and Shirley Horn, among others. She has also performed under the baton of such notable jazz and classical conductors as Quincy Jones, Patrick Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, John Clayton Jr., Elmer Bernstein, Bob Brookmeyer, Justin DiCioccio and Phil Wilson.
While she’d performed many of Van Heusen’s songs during her career, Schächter hadn’t looked closely into his repertoire until she was interviewed for Jim Burns’ documentary on the songwriter, Jimmy Van Heusen: Swingin; with Frank & Bing. “Since then I’ve been exploring his music more in-depth,” Schächter says. “His songs have both clever lyrics and intriguing harmonic progressions: appealing to the new generation and the old generation as well.”
Throughout Vanheusenism, Schächter puts her own unique and elegant spin on Van Heusen’s classic songs, often reimagining the songs’ harmonic texture or rhythmic sensibility to make them her own. “Polka Dots and Moonbeams,” for instance, typically rendered as a winsome ballad, takes on a bright mid-tempo pace in Schächter’s version, her harmonic changes capturing the sense of wonder and discovery in the lyrics. Similarly, “Darn That Dream” captures the mystified consternation of the lyrics, Schächter vividly rendering the groggy frustration as dream dissipates into lovelorn wakefulness.
There’s a hint of bossa bounce to “The Second Time Around,” a danger-courting freneticism in “It Could Happen To You,” a simmering pop cool on “But Beautiful,” and a bluesy swing to the album-closing, unaccompanied “I Thought About You.” Knowing when not to mess with perfection, Schächter maintains the breezy, jet-setting spirit of “Come Fly With Me” and the yearning wistfulness of “All the Way.”
Schächter combines “Like Someone in Love” and “Imagination” into a medley, a recognition of the kinds of harmonic patterns that recurred frequently in Van Heusen’s work, making such pairings natural. “Once I started researching, I could see how similar some of his tunes were to one another,” Schächter says. “But at the same time, every tune was completely different. Melodically he could really develop the ideas in different ways, with very interesting musical details, despite the similarities between some of the tunes.”
She added a new intro and outro to “Here’s That Rainy Day,” which opens the album, and contributed a brand new song in the composer’s recognizable style. “Vanheusenism” combines several elements gleaned from Van Heusen’s oeuvre (check the motif that the bass and sax play in unison, for instance) into a new love song featuring a romantic solo by Tucker.
While Vanheusenism marks Schächter’s first foray into Songbook territory, it follows her previous releases in building an album around a unifying central concept. Her last release, Purple Butterfly, focused on the feeling of loneliness and yearning through changing seasons, moving thematically
through nearly a full calendar year; its predecessor, I Colori Del Mare, was centered on her Sicilian motherland.
“I like to make an album sound connected, with a definite direction, so a listener understands immediately what I’m trying to deliver,” Schächter explains. “In this case, Vanheusenism is my way of representing an expression that comes from listening to and playing his tunes all the time.”
It’s also a way of looking back at a bygone era, when singers and songwriters were two different creatures, each an expert in their own unique form. “Now we have songwriters who do everything: they sing, they compose, they write lyrics,” says Schächter, who can certainly count herself in that category. “Back then how music was made was so different. The result is that the songs are amazingly written and are still played after so many years. The ideas are still so strong and the melodies are still so interesting. I’d like to keep that tradition alive and perform those tunes in a way that might interest a new generation.”