There is often a certain element of debate as to what makes someone a jazz singer. But in the case of the outstanding vocalist Janice Borla, that debate will never take place. From the opening bars of her remarkable new album Promises to Burn on Tall Grass Records, there is no doubt that this is jazz at its purest. Eschewing the vocalist with accompaniment approach for that of a fully integrated instrumental ensemble, Janice takes on eight challenging compositions, many of which would be unexpected material for a vocalist. To accomplish this successfully, a clear vision of structure is demanded, and Janice’s formidable arranging artistry is fully up to the task.
Composers like Lennie Tristano, Jack DeJohnette, Bob Mintzer and Bill Evans are generally not names that show up on vocalists’ albums, but they’re all represented here alongside Leonard Bernstein, Tadd Dameron and Joey Calderazzo. Janice has also assembled an exceptional ensemble of musicians for the project, all of whom play in the conversational style that is ideal for telling the stories that are told in this extraordinary album. The rapport of all of the musicians is exemplary. Art Davis on trumpet and flugelhorn, bassist Bob Bowman and Janice’s husband and drummer Jack Mouse have all performed on Janice’s three previous albums. Guitarist John McLean was on one, and Scott Robinson on tenor sax and flute is recording with Janice for the first time here. The arrangements provide a broad palette of textures and contexts for interaction – harmonized, contrapuntal and improvisational, and with plenty of room for blowing.
Janice’s beautiful, rounded voice and flawless intonation is often in scat mode here, with her wordless lyrics shaped to sound more like a horn. And like an instrumentalist, when she sings written lyrics, she does so in a manner that states the melodic line to create the framework from which the solo will emerge.
Consummate musicianship, astonishing interplay, and a sense of joyfully unfettered creativity that permeates this entire album make Promises to Burn a truly uplifting experience.