All hail Ellen Andersson, the best sort of blasphemous resurrection. The audacious Swedish jazz singer with the voice of tissue paper enrobing a jewel is probably the best representation of new jazz coming out of Europe and a more than fitting successor to Billie Holiday.
On her new album, I’ll Be Seeing You, with guitarist Anton Forsberg, bassist Hannes Jonsson, and drummer Sebastian Brydniak, Andersson surpasses Lady Day’s unconventional, contrarian style.
Those who found Holiday’s later affectations — the oddly placed, exaggerated upturns in an otherwise depressing set list — a bit much will find the right mix in Andersson, a noticeable improvement.
Andersson doesn’t merely cover jazz standards note for note, or self-indulgently rely on posturing to get away with pages of morose wailing. She flexes her own intuitive, smart standards on nine mixed tracks made famous long ago by famous jazz people.
The tracks vary in mood, from upbeat and playful (“Au Privave,” “Everything I Love”) to somber (“Smile,” “Gloomy Sunday”), so she’s not one-note either.
Her voice carries an entire band, whether she’s confidently out there scatting entire numbers or wryly commenting on the status of fluctuating love by flighty suitors on the mercurial strength of her lyrical voice alone.
At other times, she melts into the rhythm, becoming one with the one instrument that doesn’t appear much in the standard, intimate jazz of vocals, bass, drums: the horn section.
An All About Jazz music critic wrote Oct. 24, 2016 that Andersson is trying too hard to be Lady Day. But that’s unfair and inaccurate, the second she eases into the comfort zone of “Gloomy Sunday” — arguably the best track on the album.
The difference this time, Andersson interrupts the Lady Day standard correctly, with the right amount of pathos and emotional truth. Where Lady Day sang her songs of heartbreak to death, leaving room for nothing else, Andersson lets her naturally textured voice break through the doom and gloom for much-needed, human perspective and her own personality. She smartly uses her breath, her phrasing, and her instincts to evoke a feeling that touches on these things that make a “Gloomy Sunday” without getting mired in the muck.
Unlike Lady Day, Andersson does this with an openness in a voice that maintains a spritely, clear aura of intention, sharing, accessible, and above all else, pure. She never goes too far, ever mindful of letting the musicality stir the pot of emotions she holds in check — far more effective than laying everything out there.
Her scatting here is also impeccably in tune with the emotions barely bubbling over the surface.
Andersson’s scatting is so catchy in itself that you don’t really need to hear anything else.
In “Au Privave,” she could literally carry this tune on her scat, it’s so rhythmic. But that’s what the scintillating drumming’s for. Brydniak and the bassist, Jonsson, do their job well as the wind beneath her wings.
“I’ll Be Seeing You” showcases her innate sense of timing, blending her vocal instrument with the other musicians, and that confident scatting.
Her quartet reinvigorates this oft-covered standard into something spectacular and new.
Andersson immediately locks onto the pulse of the cover from the first note acapella until the guitar then bass and cymbal-scintillating drums slink in, understating the obvious, billowing the tones and the cues.
The way she randomly reshapes the vowels to suit her quirky whimsy will have you coming back for more. She can hold a note almost better than a trumpet player signing off, shifting into second gear from forever. Then, you can hear her slow intake of breath, which is as meaningful as her singing voice, as many sensitive flugelhornists in the style of the late Art Farmer understand all too well.
As on “‘S Wonderful,” she fearlessly scats in a forward motion up front and in your face, quite a feat. Scatting involves a thorough knowledge of every turn of events in the chord structure, then throwing that away to match the pitch and frequency on a parallel course toward the divine — and making it all look easy.
She wouldn’t dream of hiding behind the tones of the horn or the back beat of the rhythm section. Her phrasing emphasizes the highs and lows where she deems necessary; it’s as if she’s all alone and we’re imagining a band.
I’ll Be Seeing You features a winning combination of Andersson’s contextual Lady Day inflections, superb, personalized phrasing, and musical instrumentation on voice, as well as huge dollops of straight-ahead jazz goodness from the band.
Bassist Hannes Jonsson outdoes himself on “‘S Wonderful” and “Au Privave,” along with the drummer, Sebastian Brydniak. They counter and support Andersson’s crinkly tissue paper voice smartly.
Alto saxophonist Oilly Wallace and guitarist Anton Forsberg layer in a firm foundation of disquiet fronting “A Day In The Life Of A Fool” for Andersson to have her way with. More than halfway in, Wallace returns to complicate the matter with his tangled, seductive maze of a solo.
Wallace memorably appears in another Lady Day tune, “I Cried For You,” the last song on the record.
With guitarist/co-producer Forsberg barely there, keeping loose track and Wallace glowing on sax, Andersson assuredly sings through Lady Day’s abject abandon with a sense of self through willowy, wistful vocals, alternating between the question and the silky answers, lingering on a breath that could branch off into its own bonus track.
Trumpeter Peter Asplund also guest stars on three tracks, lavishing the record with his control and majestic tone.
The Ellen Andersson Quartet’s I’ll Be Seeing You came out last year on Prophone Records.