‘Back to The Garden’ with Judy Wexler

Vocalist Judy Wexler has taken ten tracks of popular music from the 1960s and reimagined them with new arrangements. According to Wexler,

Music is truly a reflection of the times, and the music of the 1960s reflected the turbulence engendered by war, political protests, and the rise of important social movements like feminism and racial justice. Fifty years later, we’re still struggling with those same issues and more. Although the arrangements of these iconic songs are new, I find their message of love, hope and change as timely as ever.

There are some big tunes here as pertinent today as they were when they were first released – which may be an indication as to how little we have progressed on some issues – but how do they stand-up with fresh arrangements?

The first thing that struck me on hearing ‘Get Together’ is how versatile Judy Wexler’s vocals are. Her diction is clear, the vocal range and phrasing good giving the lyrics an authenticity not always heard in straightforward cover versions. I should also give credit to backing vocalists Erin Bentlage and Talley Sherwood who fill out the vocal sound, which gives the track added depth and colour. I also enjoyed the guitar playing of Larry Koonse, and the piano of Jeff Colella who arranged the track.

‘Up On The Roof’ is different to the version by the Drifters that I am familiar with. The tempo is slower, and for me this really works, the tune has a more reflective tone to it than the original. The piano playing is wonderful and the interjection on guitar perfectly placed. Steve Hass on drums does a terrific job on this number but this is all about Judy’s delivery and it is so good! ‘American Tune’ is not a number I know well but Judy brings a world-weariness to the track accentuated by the well-arranged string section. Jeff Colella again does well at the piano and knows how to help bring out the best in Judy’s vocals.

‘Big Yellow Taxi’ and ‘The Times They Are A Changing’ are the two big tunes on this album being that the originals are so well known. Piano and guitar open ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ with the phrase played Larry Koonse being a constant throughout the track. The vocal is not too far removed from the original, but I found the tone to be slightly fuller than Joni Mitchell’s and Judy is supported by strong backing vocals from Erin Bentlage. What really lifts the track for me is the alto sax of Danny Janklow who gives the number a richer sound not found in the original. There is a beautiful flow to ‘Times They Are A Changing’ and the warm tone of the melodica brings an interesting touch of colour to this Bob Dylan classic. This arrangement suggests to me that although the times are a changing it is a slower process than we should like.

‘Since You’ve Asked’ begins with a sumptuous string section and good percussive support from Steve Hass. The vocals flow nicely and there is a good guitar solo in the middle section. There are nice soundscape touches to this song that give it an added edge. The piano in ‘For What It’s Worth’ is played percussively, the guitar work is strong throughout as is the drumming. The vocal range employed is impressive as are the backing vocals, without which I do not think this tune would have worked so well. ‘Everybody’s Talkin’’ is a beautifully sung ballad with wonderful piano accompaniment and a superb harmonica solo from Hendrik Meurkens.

‘Forever Young’ is a full voiced tune with a great mix of Larry Koonse’ guitar and Carrie Kennedy’s violin but it is again the mixed vocals of Judy Wexler and the backing singers that is the core strength of this number. Jeff Colella on piano opens ‘Who Knows Where The Time Goes’ written by Sandy Denny. We also get to hear Jay Jennings on trumpet who plays just behind Judy’s vocals, and it is a wonderful mix. Judy’s tonal range is there for all to hear on this tune, which brings the album to a strong end.

Back To The Garden is categorised as contemporary jazz and as such Jazz Journal writes that it shows “an always engaging demonstration of contemporary jazz singing at its best.” For me, I should have liked to have heard a bit more of the jazz and blues styling but having said that, this album is full of wonderfully arranged tunes very well played and sung. There is no doubt that Judy Wexler is a vocal talent that needs to be heard and her take on these ten selected tunes really is impressive, particularly on tracks two, four, and five – and this is the first time I have suggested three standout tunes.

Tracklist:

1. Get Together (Chet Powers). 2. Up on the Roof (Gerry Goffin & Carole King). 3. American Tune (Paul Simon). 4. Big Yellow Taxi (Joni Mitchell). 5. The Times They Are A Changin’ (Bob Dylan). 6. Since You’ve Asked (Judy Collins). 7. For What It’s Worth (Stephen Stills). 8. Everybody’s Talkin’ (Fred Neil). 9. Forever Young (Bob Dylan). 10. Who Knows Where the Time Goes (Sandy Denny)

Musicians:

Judy Wexler, vocals
Jeff Colella – piano, melodica (5), BGV (1); Larry Koonse – nylon string & electric guitar; Bob Thiele, Jr. – electric guitar, baritone guitar; Gabe Davis – bass; Steve Hass – drums; Danny Janklow – alto sax (4); Jay Jennings, trumpet (10); Hendrik Meurkens – harmonica (8); Sara Caswell – violin (9); Erin Bentlage – background vocals (1,4,7,9); Joel Pargman – violin (2,6); Carrie Kennedy – violin (2); Rodney Wirtz – viola (2,6); Stefanie Fife – cello (2,5,6); Talley Sherwood – background vocals (1)

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