Bright Lights & Promises: Redefining Janis Ian
All About Jazz
April 14, 2017
How did nobody think to go here before? With a glut of fine Joni Mitchell tributes on the market and a couple of engrossing Laura Nyro nods out there, how is it that no creative spirits in the jazz or cabaret camps thought to make the full-on jump to Janis Ian before now? Hearing Sarah Partridge dig into Ian’s body of work makes this concept seem like a no-brainer—an incredibly natural fit, in fact—but that may very well have more to do with Partridge’s vision and interpretive brilliance than it does with the material penned by the honoree.
Nobody familiar with Ian’s oeuvre would argue against saluting her work, but the folk-ish qualities that carry her musical art, whether materializing through a flower power lens or tackling life’s truest cruelties, don’t necessarily call out for jazz rewrites. Fortunately, that didn’t stop Sarah Partridge from pursuing this project. After connecting with Ian, she couldn’t get the idea out of her head. She may have had her doubts about where she could go with the music, but those doubts didn’t deter her one bit. Partridge’s worries ultimately proved unfounded, as she put together a compelling program that touches on different facets and eras of Ian’s career. It’s neither disloyal to the originals nor congruent with them. It exists in its own space, leaning on the everlasting songs of Janis Ian while resting atop Partridge’s firm artistic footing.
The playlist includes nuggets from the hippie days of the ’60s, bluesy fare from the ’70s, latter day works penned in the past two decades, and a pair of songs co-written by Partridge and Ian just for the occasion. Ian’s best known work makes the cut, as it should, and it simultaneously fulfills and defies expectations. “Society’s Child,” for example, seems to merge the aesthetics of Steely Dan and Joni Mitchell without losing an ounce of its eye-opening purpose, and “At Seventeen” glides along in seven on an airy cloud while Partridge presents the song’s bitter pill realizations with incredible poise. Both are highlights, but it’s almost wrong to call out any individual songs for special praise. All thirteen tracks work beautifully. What’s not to love with an album that includes a samba-fied “Calling Your Name,” a soulful “Belle Of The Blues,” a hard swinging “Silly Habits,” a blues-drenched “Bright Lights & Promises,” and a newly-penned “A Quarter Past Heartache” with Ian herself joining in?
One of Ian’s chief gifts has always been her ability to mine the world’s depressive truths and show us the horrors of reality. That certainly isn’t lost on Partridge. In collaborating with Ian to create “Somebody’s Child,” a piece that touches on the understanding that the homeless and helpless of the world were once the young and innocent children of mothers and fathers, and in covering the chilling “Matthew,” a song about the beating and killing of Matthew Shepard, Partridge follows Ian’s path and makes us confront subjects that are often far too difficult to discuss. The same holds true with several other songs that receive emotionally reverberant interpretations—”Tattoo” and the aforementioned “Society’s Child,” most notably.
The musicianship here is superb throughout—you shouldn’t expect anything less when Tim Horner is driving from the drums, Scott Robinson is covering reeds, Allen Farnham is manning the keys and arranging the material, and other heavy hitters are in the mix—and Partridge hits a bull’s-eye on every single song. She can scat, strut, soar, and tear your heart and soul to shreds without ever breaking a sweat. She’s that good, these performances are that memorable, and this album is most certainly one for the ages.
Track Listing: A Quarter Past Heartache; Tattoo; Society’s Child; Forever And A Day; Calling Your Name; At Seventeen; Belle Of The Blues; Matthew; Silly Habits; Somebody’s Child; Bright Lights & Promises; Orphan Of The Wind; I’m Still Standing.
Personnel: Sarah Partridge: vocals; Janis Ian: vocals (1); Allen Farnham: piano; Bill Moring: bass; Tim Horner: drums, percussion; Scott Robinson: tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone, flute, clarinet; Ben Williams: trombone; Paul Meyers: acoustic guitar; Ben Stein electric guitar.
Jazz vocalists, expanding their repertoire, have recently turned to women songwriters in the rock and folk world, such as Joni Mitchell and Laura Nyro. Sarah Partridge now presents her renditions of tunes by Janis Ian, who is still writing songs. Indeed, the two collaborated on a couple lyrics in this collection. Ian’s fame peaked in the 1970s after at age 14 in 1965 writing a provocative song that caught the attention of Leonard Bernstein. Ian continues to write songs of profound social importance. This album includes a chilling jazz piece about the Holocaust [Tattoo], another about racial bigotry and separation at high school [Society’s Child], the lament of the murdered gay college man in Wyoming [Matthew], another lament about an abandoned love child [Orphan of the Wind], but also romances gone bad, [A Quarter Past Heartache; Silly Habits] or gained [Forever and A Day]. Also present are an elder citizen’s blues [Belle of The Blues] and anthem [I’m Still Standing] and a rocking electric blues of cafe society [Bright Lights & Promises]. Partridge moreover sings Ian’s most well-known song that concerns retrospective reflections on awkward youth [Seventeen]. The supporting band is strong, with famous reed maven Scott Robinson on tenor and soprano saxophone, flute, and clarinet, featured in the samba Calling Your Name; Paul Meyers on acoustic guitar; Ben Stein playing electric guitar, Ben Williams adding some cheerful character with his trombone, and pianist, arranger, producer Allen Farnham, bassist Bill Moring, and drummer Tim Horner cementing the beat. Partridge includes scatting in her vocals, and on the first collaborative track, A Quarter Past Heartache, she is joined by Ian herself. Partridge began her career as an actor in film and television, but a serendipitous karaoke session led to hiring for a concert and a new direction. Encouraged by Doc Cheatham, she honed her jazz art in New York and Los Angeles. This album is her fifth. If you are not familiar with the songs of Janis Ian, the lyrics will astonish you, and Partridge has done great service in bringing them forward and in such a very fine manner with swinging brightness, great phrasing, poignancy, and deeply sensitive blues and ballads.
MUSIC REVIEW BY
If Partridge wasn’t the art chick with loads extra, we’d have to be scratching our heads wondering why a jazz tribute to Janis Ian. Well, Partridge brings in Allen Farnham to help with the music and brings in Ian herself to co-write some new ones. Take that homage makers! Long after you’ve taken Ian for granted, this revival does more than pump air into her lungs. Making music and taking risks? What a concept. Turn your ears Partridge’s way for this winner of a set that starts in a good place and winds up somewhere wonderful.
JERSEY JAZZ SOCIETY REVIEW
Let me say up front that I was not familiar with the music of Janis Ian before listening to Bright Light & Promises: Redefining Janis Ian (Origin – 82732) by vocalist SARAH PARTRIDGE. Ian’s songs are infused with much social commentary, and were, in their original stylistic form, in the tradition of folk music. Partridge had the idea to create an album of Ian’s songs done as jazz pieces. To aid her in this process, she assembled a fine band comprising pianist Allen Farnham, who also wrote most of the arrangements, bassist Bill Moring, drummer Tm Horner, who penned the other charts, multi-reedman Scott Robinson, trombonist Ben Williams, acoustic guitarist Paul Meyers and electric guitarist Ben Stein. Partridge also collaborated with Ian on two new songs. The program has 13 selections, including Ian’s two most well known songs, “Society’s Child” and “At Seventeen.” Partridge is in fine form on her vocals, powerful, assured and committed. The arrangements are well conceived and the execution by the band is exquisite. Whether these songs work for you in a jazz context will probably be a function of how you respond to Ian’s lyrics. The songs with the most jazzy feeling both musically and lyrically are “A Quarter Past Heartache,” one of the Partridge/Ian selections that opens the album, “Belle of the Blues,” “Silly Habits” and “”Bright Lights & Promises.” Partridge and her crew have done a fine job of bringing her concept to fruition. (originarts.com)
I Never Thought I’d Be Here
George W. Harris. June 2015 Sarah Partridge does all the composing here, yet sounds a bit more in the modern jazz tradition. With the team of Allen Farnham/p, Bill Moring/b, Tim Horner/dr, Paul Meyers/g, Scott Robinson/woodwinds, and Ben Williams/tb she is able to display sophistication on mature ballads such as “Eager Is The Night” and “ Caverns of My Heart.” Her voice is quite flexible, and she shows she can sing the blues well on “Runaway Train” where she scats alongside Williams’ trombone. Her Brazilian chops are a subtle strength on “Grace” and she works well with the rhythm team on the bouncy “Perspective.” Mature music
ALL ABOUT JAZZ. April 2015 issue.
MICHAEL BAILEY, Boston-born singer Sarah Partridge didn’t start out a singer. She started out as an actor (you can see her opposite of Tom Cruise in Risky Business (Warner Brothers, 1983)) who took the Karaoke stage one night and got noticed by the right ears and five recordings later the rest is history. Where her previous recording, Perspective (Peartree Productions, 2010) was an intimate, piano-voice affair of standards, the present I Never Thought I’d Be Here is a full sextet band reading of all Partridge originals.
In this expanded format, Partridge takes the reins and guides her instrumental quintet through a decade of originals characterized by expansive and memorable melodies grounded with impressive arrangement and performance chops. Partridge’s composing harkens back to a Broadway base. Her songs have a bigness about them, something goes beyond her support. The presence of Scott Robinson’s saxophone and flutes and particularly, Ben Williams tart trombone (“I Just Won’t Let you Go” a stand out) tempers Partridge’s already steady and subdued voice, making for a very satisfying outing.
Track Listing: Perspective; Grace; Light of Day; Caverns of my Heart; I Never Thought I’d Be Here; I Just Won’t Let You Go; Heart’s Desire; Runaway Train; Eager is the Night; Around the Corner.
Personnel: Sarah Partridge: vocals; Allen Farnham: piano; Bill Moring: bass; Tim Horner: drums and percussion; Ben Stein: guitar (8); Scott Robinson: tenor saxophone, alto flute, flute; Ben Williams: trombone.
Reviewed by Victoria Ordin
Sarah Partridge’s first full collection of original songs, I Never Thought I’d Be Here, appropriately begins with a forward-looking invitation: “Lift up your heart/ And fly away with me/ Stop looking back/ And find a life you know is meant to be…” “Perspective,” the album’s first track, thus serves as a kind of overture to her newest artistic endeavor: an album of all original songs written by her. Well-known to audiences on both coasts as the Risky Business actress-turned-jazz vocalist improbably dis- covered in the late 1990s at the Improv in West Hollywood, Partridge has written nine songs with a lyric unity equal to the vocal one she brought to her much-admired interpretations of the American Songbook.
Moving through the album, my dominant thought was simply, “Why isn’t Partridge a household name?” Particularly when, as jazz historian Sanford Josephson notes in the album jacket, she is accompanied by the talented Allen Farnham on piano, along with five other superlative jazz musicians (Bill Morning on bass, Tim Horner on drums, Scott Robinson on the tenor sax and the alto flute, Ben Williams on the trombone, and Paul Meyers on the guitar.)
Songs like “Grace” and “Caverns of My Heart” convey a decadent yet tentative languor, while more up-tempo songs like “Light of Day” and “I Never Thought I’d Be Here,” with their bold horns and swelling crescendos, confidently assert her pursuit of new intentions and ways of being. Throughout these alternations, one thing remains constant: the velvet exuberance of Partridge’s voice. Unlike some club singers whose technique falls short of their personality and heart, Partridge has serious vocal chops. I find myself listening to these songs again and again and agree with Josephson that “some of the album’s songs are destined to become new standards.
You Are There: Songs For My Father
…Ms. Partridge belongs to a tradition of jazz singers who use hard rhythm as a kind of emotional armor. Instead of exploring the interior worlds of her material, she sustains the image of a plucky, can-do gal and good sport who swings at a steady jogging pace…
At the opening show her voice suggested an unlikely fusion of Nanette Fabray and Anita O’Day: Ms. Fabray for the upbeat talky quality of her enunciation and sometimes fluttery vibrato and intonation, and Ms. O’Day for the bedrock swing propelling her scat improvisations. That rhythmic security is Ms. Partridge’s strongest asset.
On Partridge’s latest album, “You Are There: Songs From My Father,” the arrangements are warm and well paced; her delivery is crisp and lean yet never runs cold. Her takes on songs such as “Stormy Monday Blues” and “Stars Fell on Alabama” are neither rehashes nor deconstructions, a vital balance if the songs are to retain both freshness and identity.
Her new album is a case in point. It is a tribute to her deceased father, and the one original song, the affecting “Dancing in My Mind,” finds her reminiscing on childhood memories, and on loss, from a grown-up, philosophical perspective. That same perspective pervades Partridge’s outlook on her somewhat non-traditional, yet largely happy career.
This album pays tribute to the memory of her beloved father, Lawrence Partridge, in a swinging journey through some of the classic songs of the last century that her father loved plus some songs that he would have loved to hear Sarah sing. His daughter even wrote one song
especially for him. With effervescent arrangements featuring spontaneous improvisations and
interplay between Partridge and her bandmates, You are There is a feel-good foray into thejoys of small-group swing and classic jazz songs. AllAboutJazz.com
Reviews for Blame It On My Youth
South Orange based Sarah Partridge is a jazz singer who has an open, clear voice, a solid rhythmic sense and a feeling for the best material. The 14 tune program is filled with evergreens done in a personal manner. For instance, “Almost Like Being In Love, usually a swinger, has a surprising floating quality, which Partridge handles deftly. “How Long Has This Been Going On?” is refreshingly done as a bossa, and Partridge fills “Haunted Heart” with emotion. Pianists Allen Farnham and Larry Ham, guitarists Bucky Pizzarelli and Gene Bertoncini and drummers Rich DeRosa and Sherrie Maricle are among the A-1 supporting crew. ZAN STEWART – THE SUNDAY STAR LEDGER
Sarah returns after too long an absence on records with 14 standards guaranteed to satisfy. Lerner and Lowe’s “Almost Like Being In Love” is crooned as a slow winding dirge. It’s as if the song is heard for the very first time and it becomes even more of a classic. Here is one enormously gifted songbird who can really deliver on every kind of song. Oh how I await the master-singer’s next CD. May I not have to wait so long!’
…These are great songs, and Sarah Partridge owns a great voice. Her enthusiasm for the material brings new life to some old classics. They don’t write them like this anymore and very few can sing them like Sarah does. Enjoy!”
Partridge… is in many ways… still is a young singer, doing it professionally only for a decade or so. But she has leaped in that short time to the front of girl jazz singers. Partridge takes every lyric and caresses it, understanding that songs like this must be a perfect blend of
music and lyrics. All in all, a nearly perfect package, a CD that can be listened to again and again.
Garland Reeves, The Birmingham (AL) News