Jazz Album of the Week: Rachael & Vilray, Songs Reminiscent of Tunes from the '30s and '40s

Jan 6, 2020

January 6, 2019. Looking for some good old-fashioned fun? Here it is. Rachael Price has made a name for herself as lead vocalist of Lake Street Dive, the harmonizing folk-rockers erring on the side of Motown. What fans of her sound might not know is that, for years, she’d been dying to sing jazz, more specifically the kinds of tunes popularized by the big-band singers of the '30s and '40s. 

Those were exactly the type of tunes Vilray, a composer, guitarist, vocalist, and former classmate of Price’s at the New England Conservatory of Music had already been writing and playing. The stars were aligned for the two to collaborate and, here, they’ve done so, with their self-titled debut release, Rachael & Vilray.

Of the 12 selections, 10 are Vilray originals, but one might just as easily mistake them for lesser-known standards from 80 years ago; Vilray has an old, musical soul, and he writes music and lyrics that strike a matching aesthetic.

Best practices in auditory health call for a return to vinyl, and that’s how this album is optimally enjoyed. Those warm crackles and pops fit in snugly as an additional member of the band.

Price has brought Lake Street Dive’s Akie Bermiss to play piano on every cut that calls for it, save one, “Go on Shining.” This is the song—after listening to the album several times through—to which I keep returning.

Jon Batiste, the celebrated New Orleanian who, among an overwhelming amount of other things, anchors Stay Human, the Late Show with Stephen Colbert’s house band, accompanies on piano. Price’s star-quality moment happens here.

Meanwhile, the humility in Batiste’s playing belies his status as an ascendant superstar; he blends right in, a willing co-conspirator and contributor to maestro Vilray’s intoxicating brew of unabashed nostalgia that, at it’s best, isn’t the least bit cloying, just a tad smoky, like the smell of a Don Draper sport coat after a three-martini lunch.

“Alone at Last” predates the mid-century modern aesthetic of Draper’s Mad Men and instead conjures Raymond Chandler’s hard-boiled pre-war Los Angeles: dissonant, cynical, and a little dark but also beautiful.

It’s the tune here that’s unlike the others, languid with a melody that’s unusual and unusually memorable. Written by Vilray as an ode to his fiancé celebrating their shared introspection, it’s the song Price has called her favorite on the album.

Jacob Rex Zimmerman manages to capture the clarinet style of that period without cheaply imitating it and the same is true of the how the horn section of Mark Lopeman (tenor sax), Jon-Erik Kellso (trumpet), and Joe McDonough (trombone) approaches Vilray’s film noir-inspired arrangement.

But don’t discount the words being sung. Vilray’s lyrics are clever and playful and also surprisingly intellectual. One might not expect references to French existentialists amidst the whimsicality, but, alas, there they are. Pragmatists beware: this is music for the romantic dreamers out there.

The duo appears unaccompanied, just Vilray’s guitar and both party’s vocals, on two tracks, “Do Friends Fall in Love,” and “I Can’t Go to Sleep.” Both are the kind of Hawaiian-tinged, country-inflected tunes that end up on Hollywood soundtracks, which isn’t to call them generic so much as atmospheric, especially the former, which is a falling-in-love montage waiting to happen.

“At Your Mother’s House” is a swingin’ big band-style arrangement that gets all the hepcats onto the dance floor, while “I Love the Way You’re Breaking My Heart,” originally recorded by one of Price’s inspirations, Peggy Lee, is a bluesy ballad for the lovers and one of only two covers on the album.

The other is a take on Pedro Junco Jr. 1943 composition “Nosotros.” Price has stated a desire to record an entire album in Spanish; if this is any indication how it might sound, we should encourage that.