Rachel Caswell

There’s no mistaking the message of “We’re All in The Dance,” the title track of singer Rachel Caswell’s latest album. It’s a lovely waltz, the leitmotif song of the 2006 film Paris, je t’aime, which constitutes 18 miniature meditations on the joys, discontents and consequences of love in the City of Love by an international cohort of renowned directors. The English lyrics—rendered by Feist over the film’s final credits—pair the dance of life (“partners are lost and found looking for one more chance”) with the dance of music (“feel the beat; music and rhyme while there is time”). Somehow, through her purity of tone, intelligent phrasing, and flowing time feel, Caswell—cosigned by an ascendant solo by her younger sister, Grammy-nominated violinist Sara Caswell—navigates an alternate, bespoke pathway through a song whose simplicity and elegance pose a challenge to a singer steeped in the complexities of jazz expression.

“There are only so many topics that are universal, and I guess love is the big one,” Caswell says. “It’s hard to avoid it when you’re a singer!” She addresses the subject head-on throughout the proceedings, comprising ten songs culled from a long timeline and, like the vignettes in Paris, je t’aime, from a panoply of stylistic genres. Caswell tells each story with equivalent levels of individualism and interpretive mojo, imparting a continuity and identity from the first track (an inflamed, incantatory reading of Sting’s “Fragile,” on which she follows another wondrous solo by her sister with several choruses of cogent, swinging, unfailingly in-tune improvised vocalese) to the last (a mesmerizing meditation on Jon Hendricks’ bittersweet-yet-optimistic lyric to Thelonious Monk’s “Reflections”).

Along the way, Caswell puts deep blues inflections on “Drown in My Own Tears,” the Ray Charles classic, followed by a soulful guitar declamation by master blues practitioner—and album producer—Dave Stryker. She channels her inner Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan on “A Lovely Way to Spend an Evening” (a hit in the ’40s and ’50s for Frank Sinatra, the Ink Spots and Johnny Mathis), eschewing a balladic approach for a well-wrought, lightly swinging delivery of the lyric, inspired by a 1969 treatment by Oscar Peterson and Herb Ellis, then a scat improvisation that evokes the aura of Sonny Stitt.

She renders the late Bob Dorough’s “Devil May Care” with apropos vertiginous flair, developing her rhythmic ideas on yet another instrument-like improvisation. She applies a spacious Latin feel to Henry Mancini’s “Two for The Road,” and showcases her broad registral range and deep pocket in conveying Tom Lellis’ evocative lyrics to Herbie Hancock’s “Tell Me A Bedtime Story.” Dave Stryker’s arrangement of Rodgers & Hart’s American Songbook classic “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was” plays on the title, shifting odd meters with finger-popping swing at different sections of the lyric. She scats the melody of Charlie Parker’s “Dexterity” with an idiomatic bebop feel, gives her A-list partners full autonomy to play it in their manner, and responds to their postulations with a pithy scat.

“I can be all over the map as a person, and that’s reflected in the music that I like and feel I can express in an interesting way,” Caswell says. Her capacious tastes took shape in her hometown, Bloomington, Indiana, where her father, Austin Caswell, was a popular professor at the Indiana University School of Music and her mother an organist and pianist. “We were a singing family,” she says. Formerly a cellist, she started playing jazz piano at 12 and jazz cello at 13. She credits jazz educator-cellist-trombonist David Baker, a family friend, with facilitating her prowess at scat and “the language and nomenclature” of bebop.

“You couldn’t grow up with David and not know bebop tunes,” Caswell says. “I feel I’ve found a good balance, fitting together bebop and improvisational material with my more interpretive singer side, and I feel this record reflects those attributes well.”

We’re All in The Dance follows a cohort of Caswell-Stryker duos on her 2015 album, All I Know, that coincided with Caswell’s decision to quit her 40-hour-a-week day job to devote her energies fully to music. “We obviously have a musical affinity, and clicked immediately,” Caswell says of her simpatico with Stryker. The same dynamic holds true, of course, when Caswell interacts with her sister, “the sound in the other half of my brain.”

Another of the record’s great pleasures is an opportunity to hear how deftly each world-class member of the kinetic rhythm section locks into their task of reimagining and reconfiguring “standards”—a context that might seem counter-intuitive to their respective fan bases. Whether addressing the acoustic piano or keyboards, Fabian Almazan comps empathetically and solos with inspired intention and harmonic imagination; Linda May Han Oh constructs one immaculate bassline after another with customarily penetrating tone and perfect time; Johnathan Blake, as in-demand as any drummer of his generation, creates the ideal groove for each environment.

“They already share a high order of sensitivity with each other, and in conjunction with Dave’s driving style it makes for a very cool, modern feel,” Caswell says. “Often on singer records, the rhythm section won’t bring their personalities to the table but will conform to the idea of a traditional jazz singer record. I guess I’m not that singer. I call them because they are interesting and great, and I want them to be interesting and great at the same moment I’m trying to push myself and showcase what I’m able to do. They elevated the material to another level.”

Hopefully, Stryker’s imprimatur and this cutting-edge band will induce gatekeepers from radio and the press to listen closely to this superb album. If they do, and respond accordingly, Caswell herself may be moving to another level of visibility in the not so distant future.

–Ted Panken