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Jo Lawry leads an all-star trio with the greatest of ease on 'Acrobats'

Jo Lawry, center, with Linda May Han Oh (left) and Allison Miller (right)
Erika Kapin
Jo Lawry, center, with Linda May Han Oh (left) and Allison Miller (right)

Jo Lawry’s Acrobats is a valorous display of vocal agility and empathetic musical support. As an expert songwriter and interpreter of standards and other songs, patient and poised, Lawry chooses exact opportunities to emphasize a melody line or vocal phrase. When she strikes, her razor-sharp instincts manifest a refreshing and rewarding listening experience.

A native of South Australia, Lawry studied intensively at Adelaide University before moving to the United States, where she attended Purchase College before earning a doctorate at the New England Conservatory. Her four previous albums as a leader over the last 15 years capture the variety of her musical interests, through experiences that include time in the ensembles of pianist Fred Hersch and pop chameleon Sting.

On Acrobats, Lawry is aided solely by the rhythm team of Linda May Han Oh on bass and Allison Miller on drums. The absence of a chordal instrument suggests territory more often explored by horn players, but Lawry is up for the challenge. Vocalist Lawry has a clear and pitch-perfect tone and reveals a melodic and harmonic sophistication that allows her to navigate these 10 tunes with aplomb.

Instrumentally, Oh and Miller provide a strong measure of comfort, but they’re just as primed to dive into the unknown. They avoid the temptation to overplay, but stretch and bend within the structures right along with Lawry. All three are active, individual listeners who respect the open spaces and revel in each of their discoveries.

After a rubato casting of the prelude, “Traveling Light” is off to the races as a bright, up-tempo waltz. Each player is trained on the others in the ultimate tightrope walk, without a net. “317 East 32nd Street” is a signature composition by Lennie Tristano — and a vehicle for Lawry’s swinging, tour de force scat showcase. As this tune is based on the standard “Out of Nowhere,” Oh’s choice of notes on bass help to outline the harmony and, during certain rhythmic punctuation, calls back to the original standard.

A mashup of “My Time of Day” and “I’ve Never Been in Love” is a delightful toe dip into the avant-garde; Lawry and company help us to briefly imagine these melodies in the spirit of underappreciated vocalists Jeanne Lee or the Albert Ayler discovery Patty Waters. The vocal-bass-drums team shapeshifts into a merry-go-round, swirling and warping both rhythmically and dynamically before crawling to a stop at just under five minutes.

Two duets, “You’re the Top” and “Takes Two to Tango,” pair Lawry in separate duos with Miller and Oh, respectively. The subtractions here further bring out Lawry’s sonority and, programming-wise, help to delightfully reset our ears.

However, the song most outside the “jazz” cannon may be the most arresting. As an expert singer-songwriter herself, Lawry knows a thing or two about matching the right lyric and melody with the correct intensity. Fellow Australian John Farnham’s in-your-face call for ceasefire, “You’re The Voice,” sounds out from Lawry, Oh, and Miller as anthemic as it should.

We’re all someone’s daughter / We’re all someone’s son / How long can we look at each other /  Down the barrel of a gun?

The overdubbed handclaps, vocal harmonies and brief yet raucous drum solo help the song to get big, fast. It’s a message that bears repeating.

Jo Lawry's Acrobats is available now from Whirlwind Recordings.

Greg Bryant has been a longtime curator of improvisational music as a broadcaster, writer, host and musician. As a young child, he began absorbing the artistry of Miles Davis, Les McCann, Jimmy Smith, James Brown, Ornette Coleman, Weather Report, and Jimi Hendrix via his parent's record collection. He was so moved by what he was experiencing that he took pride in relaying all of his discoveries with anyone who would listen.