Vikki True's new album, her fifth, will have listeners shaking their heads. Some will shake them rapidly signifying "too far out." And then there's that very slow shake accompanied by the silent mouthing of "Wow!" That's where I'm at.
True has sung professionally since age 15. Her education includes a degree in music and theater, classical voice training and dues-paying time in Kansas City,MO. In addition to jazz, she sings folk, funk and gospel, the latter with her group, Sweet Sisters of Mercy. Pianist Peter Schneider has been with her for 12 years, an advantage for an accompanist who must deal with those vocal twists and turns. Bill Downs, the bassist, hasn't been with her for 12 but plays as though he has. He is versatile, doubling on trumpet here and there and serving as musical director for the session. He also possesses a sense of humor. Downs wrote the liner notes as Fennard Leather and claims to torture the bass. (Well it isn't quite torture, but he does play with it.)
True's voice is rich and supple with lots of range. She can do remarkable things - scatting, vocalese, growls, quotes and complex phrasing that may remind you somewhat of Janet Lawson (with whom she studied), Sheila Jordan or Betty Carter. Sound of surprise, you bet! However, even at her most adventurous and uninhibited, she radiates the sense of being in a musical conversation, with her trio and us, the listeners. And she keeps you listening.
True and the the trio swing right from the opener. She is at home with Ellington and equally so with Ricky Lee Jones. She can be humorous and raunchy in the tradition of blues artists, as in "Don't You Feel My Leg." Her melding of "Over the Rainbow" into "Green Dolphin Street" gives new life to that overdone jam session chestnut. The surrealistic intro to "Summertime" is not for the faint-hearted. it does lead in to True's caressing phrasing of the Gershwin song before they take it on and out. Trumpeter Downs and the rhythm section are right with her throughout. Now what is special about this singer is that she will captivate you with this complex and innovative performance and then turn around and do the same with a no-frills treatment of Abbey Lincoln's "Throw it Away." Now that's communication!
If you live anywhere near Cheesecake Charlie's Cabaret in Great Barrington or any of Vikki True's other Berkshire haunts, beat a path to her door. "Live" will be even better. Wish I were there.