Patrick Arena has a hell of a voice! He doesn't so much reinvent the 10 vocal standards that are appear on his debut release Night Cap as he takes control of them with a powerful and foggy voice. Pianist Andy Monroe adds to this feel great by fairly conventional playing which is beautiful on its own terms and sounds much larger than the product of one musician. All of the cuts have the feel of being a rich production even despite the bare minimum instrumentation.
Night Cap is a quite traditional release in many ways. The music mostly echoes back to the era when the difference between a jazz vocalist and a pop vocalist was far from clear. Listeners can certainly enjoy it on that level but there is much more to this disc. "I couldn't stand myself if I didn't artistically acknowledge my gay extended family, friends and fans, as well as my own identity as a gay man," says Arena in the packaging. With grace, he does this in several ways. "Johnny Angel" was originally written for female singers to sing about the men they loved but in Arena's hands it becomes and eloquent plea for more than "acceptance" or "tolerance." Rather it is a demonstration of the universality that exists between those who might scoff at even the suggestion of the idea. Even better is the version of "Nature Boy." As Arena also says in the packaging, "As we were mixing this album, the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard occurredŠ As I learned more about this young man, I began to realize that Nature Boy could have been about him." He thus appropriately dedicates the track to the slain Shepard. In this context, "Nature Boy" becomes a profound meditation. Arena doesn't have quite the virtuosity of Billie Holiday so the cut is not quite on the same level as "Strange Fruit" but it is cut from the same cloth.
At least as compelling is "Angel Wants Out of Heaven." One of only two original compositions, this tune follow the misadventures of a recently deceased woman who wants to return to earth instead of becoming an angel. "Angel wants out of heaven/Angel wants to relive all the pain," Arena sings beautifully. What lies behind this irreverent longing? Angel sees god and "resents an authority figure." Featuring grand blues tinged inflections from Monroe as well as Arena's best vocal work, "Angel Wants Out of Heaven" also stands out for its sense of drama. Musically it begins as nothing more than a pleasing ear candy but as it progresses it becomes more and more a cry of anguish. And anguish is painful even when it resides in the so-called Promised Land.
It will be very interesting to see in the future if Arena focus more on standards or on less conventional originals. Night Cap shows that he can do both very well.