On her fifth CD, The Speed of Life,
Madeline Eastman continues to dazzle. Her voice shaping songs with authority and a reassuring coolness, Eastman plumbs the depth of sometimes overlooked lyrical meanings to make her interpretations even more effective.
Take Eastman’s ironic version of "Do I Hear a Waltz?" which assuredly is delivered not
as a waltz, but instead with a New Orleans street march beat in 4/4 ("Why is nobody dancing in the street?/Can’t they hear the beat?"). As if the listener doesn’t get the joke--that is, searching externally for a waltz that exists only in the mind of the singer, another clever Stephen Sondheim conceit--Eastman ends the song with the exclamations: "Can’t you hear it? Listen! Listen to the waltz!" So what can be concluded from such a command, when Eastman’s persona-in-song hears the waltz but the listener doesn’t? That the lovestruck subject of the tune is left bereft by her infatuation? That the whole arrangement is a prank? That the answer to the song’s title is, "No, you don’t!"?
Obviously, Eastman, sly singer that she is, injects an element of dry humor into her music, and some listeners get it and some don’t. For example, there’s Eastman’s languid and blues-tinged interpretation of another song whose title comprises an entire sentence, "Get Happy." Well, defiantly, Eastman does not
"get happy," and instead she slows down the usual snappiness of the song to imply the blues and fear and wisdom under its surface. For, Eastman suggests mixed feelings, rather than jubilation, about "going to the Promised Land." Beyond the thought-provoking nature of Eastman’s treatment of the song, Ben Sidran’s arrangement of "Get Happy" provides yet another opportunity for her to showcase her own versatility as she shows that she is as comfortable singing the blues, and convincingly, as any other genre.
Eastman scats a touch too. But not too much. On "There’s a Small Hotel," Eastman sings the first chorus straight through, suggestively and brightly, but not conventionally. Eastman expands the value of some of the words, like "hotel" and "suite," only to contract a later phrase like a rubber band, such as "with a wishing well," as a catching-up with the time value of the phrases. And then she scats. Confidently and clearly. Shunning ostentation. As if the scatting, the warbling, in unison with trumpeter Mike Olmos were a natural vocal extension of the lyrics that set up the song’s premise. And wittily, that premise involves the emphasis of the words, "Who wants people?" (from the lyrics, "Looking through the window/See the distant steeple/Not a sign of people./Who wants people?"). That repetitive motive anchors the song over which the rest of Paul Potyen’s arrangement is suspended.
At times, Eastman’s voice contains some of the qualities that make Nancy Wilson’s distinctive, such as the moan at the thought of certain heart-breaking situations, or the dynamics of building up to a narrative conclusion. A listen to Eastman’s version of "Wait Till You See Her" invites comparison to a young Wilson, from her flattening of the "n" in "glance" or the way she phrases "Free him/When you/See him" with delicacy contained within the determined dynamic buildup. Still, even though Eastman’s range is comparable to Wilson’s, Eastman’s sensibility is less of a purely emotional R&B nature, as she toys with sounds and timing, fascinated with their infinite possibilities, in the way that writers endlessly admire the never-ending effects of words upon other human beings.
Eastman’s ability to deliver a mood with a song brings life to the Carole King’s now largely overlooked popular song from the 1960’s, "Up on the Roof." Instead of a straight run-through of the song, to which we are accustomed, Randy Porter’s subdued, elastically metered arrangement stresses its more balladic potential. Eastman’s attention to the song’s dramatic moments, like "All my cares just drift right off into space," commands a closer listen to its still-pertinent lyrics: "When I come home/Feeling tired and beat/I go up where/The air is fresh and sweet./I’m far away/From the hustling crowd/And all that rat race noise/Down in the street." She does the same thing with "Where or When," ever so slightly altering the melody, this time substituting a swinging phrase from "Never Never Land," and ending the track with hints of Ella.
In addition to Eastman’s pure talent, she deserves credit for surrounding herself with superb musicianship. Her back-up trio of Porter, Rufus Reid and Akira Tana elevates her singing in a highly identifiable way, much as Kurt Elling’s group consisting of Laurence Hobgood, Rob Amster and Paul Wertico has become associated with the completeness of his sound. Eastman has recruited outstanding arrangers whose work complements the strengths of her voice. And
Eastman has teamed up with singer Kitty Margolis to record on their shared Mad-Kat Records, instead of waiting for the media conglomerates to sign her to a contract.
Lucky for us. Instead of remaining stilled, Madeline Eastman continues to sing. And we, who enjoy innovative, emotionally infused singing, are the beneficiaries.