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Vocalist Lauren Henderson’s last two albums were rangy affairs that included standards and jazz tunes, some ear-grabbing originals and lovely surprises (such as a lesser known Blossom Dearie composition and one by Amy Winehouse). They also offered a rainbow of instrumental settings and vibrant arrangements which, unfortunately, tended to impose on the intimacy of Henderson’s suede timbre and feathery phrasing. By contrast, The Songbook Session features just a piano trio, stripping out the horns, guitar and organ that brought flamboyance to previous releases. It doesn’t lack for excitement; the pianist, Sullivan Fortner, can cover more than enough territory on his own. But the sparer context enhances Henderson’s soft power, supporting her voice rather than surrounding it. It’s an approach especially well-suited to The Songbook Session’s repertoire of Great American standards, clearly designed to place Henderson in the lineage of classic jazz vocalists.
“Great American” does not pertain to this continent alone. Henderson boasts Caribbean, as well as African-American, ancestry. She also holds a degree in Hispanic studies, and she handles Spanish and Portuguese lyrics flawlessly, on the Mexican favorite “Bésame Mucho” and on Jobim’s sirenic “Meditação” (“Meditation”), respectively. Her command goes beyond elocution and extends to her mastery of the rhythmic nuances and their underlying cultural ethos. As on previous albums, she sews up various influences with an English-language standard sung in Spanish — in this case, a languorously seductive version of “Tenderly.”Henderson gets top billing, of course, but this album belongs equally to Fortner, who has played on all her full-length albums. Henderson sticks largely to the melody, expressing herself via a golden instrument and small interpretative touches rather than outsized improvisation. She leaves the fireworks to Fortner; he devours the keyboard and pushes the tracks beyond the typical songbook envelope, while staying true to the mood and atmosphere of each track (in seamless sync with bassist Eric Wheeler and drummer Allan Mednard). Fortner and Henderson have evolved a gracious and engaging symbiosis. It comes to the fore on this session, in a context that would suit Henderson’s impressive originals, as well. — Neil Tesser LISTEN OR BUY: