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Jazz Album of the Week: A Giant Musical Leap for Vocalist and Songwriter Michelle Lordi

November 11, 2019. Michaelle Lordi, described by the San Francisco Chronicle as “an emotionally insightful performer with an arrestingly beautiful sound," has a new album, Break Up with the Sound. The title comes from its very first track, “Poor Bird.” The poor bird is Lordi herself, who felt compelled with this— her fourth album—to make a break with the music that, artistically, brought her to this point.

Her previous three records had consisted mostly of straight-ahead, Songbook-type fare. But Break Up with the Sound is something different—though it feels less like a departure and more like a pivot-point for the Philadelphia-based vocalist who’s used this album to reunite with her musical roots, which, by her own admission, are “more Elvis and Patsy Cline than Mingus.”

The personnel joining Lordi are the kind of versatile musicians who can play the jazz straight or, as here, with a twist. Tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin brings just the type of sensibility Lordi was looking for here, bringing a career’s worth of jazz credits but also a proven willingness to step off the beaten path—McCaslin and his ensemble backed David Bowie on the late English rocker’s final album, and since the experience, McCaslin’s own music, like Bowie’s, has become much less classifiable.

Rudy Royston joins on drums, with Tim Motzer (guitar and various electronica) and veteran Lordi collaborator Matthew Parrish (bass) rounding out the backing quartet.

It’s Parrish, no stranger to playing with some of Philadelphia’s best (Larry McKenna, Bootsie Barnes, and Byron Landham, among scores of others), whose bass introduces Lordi’s totally reimagined take on “Lover Man,” the tune that provides the strongest bridge between where Lordi’s been, musically, and where she intends to go.

Royston and McCaslin attack with percussive and decidedly contemporary riffs, sounding very similar to how Joshua Redman and Gregory Hutchinson might attack the same tune. And there’s bit of countrified clang to the heavy distortion of Motzer’s guitar that calls to mind the distinct new kind of jazz guitar probably most associated with Julian Lage.

And yet, Lordi stays home, vocally, making for a take on a classic that’s fun, new, and balanced.

The only other standard here is a take on Cole Porter’s “True Love.” It sounds a bit different than the tune you may remember as introduced by Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly in High Society; the departure, though not as jarring as you might expect, is tinged with a melancholy that is not at all present in the sanguine original. And it might be sooner believed that this one is a Patsy Cline cover as opposed to a Cole Porter one, as Motzer again injects a country-fried, distortion-heavy twangy guitar that instructs the brain to turn the stomach in knots no matter what the lyrics say.

Patsy Cline does officially get her due, though, with Lordi’s take on “Wayward Wind,” a tune most notably performed by Patsy, Sam Cooke, and the Philadelphia-born Gogi Grant. Indeed, Lordi’s version is most similar to Cline’s, though they are different. Cline’s is more forceful, more alpha; Lordi’s is more delicate, more ethereal. And this changes the pathos of the song in a subtle but material way.

For more of this kind of thing, give Lordi’s take on Hank Williams’ “I’m so Lonesome I Could Cry” a try—it’s styled simply “I’m so Lonesome” here. Perhaps Lordi’s not the crying sort. That might explain how she’s so easily made a record full of tearjerkers.

We shouldn’t leave without mentioning Lordi’s original compositions, the first she’s put on wax.

Co-written with Motzer, “Double Crossed” is an indie-rock flavored track spotlighting McCaslin, who starts to rev-up about a quarter way through before full-on stealing the tune by its halfway point, playing with a sense of urgency that’s not as apparent anywhere else on the album.

Meanwhile, “Red House Blues” is an odd-timed blues, a lullaby in the vein of a half-haunting, half soporific “Silent Night”—McCaslin’s bluesy sax solo does nothing to refute this. Could be a perfect tune to use to tuck the little one in this holiday season—that’s if its sleepy qualities don’t tuck you in first.

Matt Silver is a journalist, commentator, and storyteller who’s been enamored with the concept of performance since his grandparents told him as a toddler that singing "Sunrise, Sunset" in rooms full of strangers was the cool thing to do.