Charmin Michelle, the first lady of Twin Cities jazz, has a new album, with guitarist Joel Shapira: Dawning and Daylight. It follows 2005’s scintillating collaboration Pure Imagination, before which listeners enjoyed Hot featuring Doug Haining and the Twin Cities Seven, not to mention premiere solo outings Your Eyes and Destination Moon.
Dawning and Daylight takes a minute to get started but, before long, takes you there, lifted to a silken stratosphere. Velvet vocals nestled in an air-tight groove, showcasing flavorful, masterfully understated guitar. Along for an adventurous ride are reedman par excellence Paul Harper on sax, with solid hands Tom Lewis (bass) and Nathan Norman (drums), Dave Schmalenberger sitting in for a couple tunes on congas.
It’s a fine recording that, for all the exquisite feeling Dawning and Daylight delivers, leads off stiff as a board. Wes Montgomery’s classic “West Coast Blues” receives a static, paint-by-number rendition, long on technique from Michelle and Shapiro, short on feeling. They do a cute matching note-for-note of vocal to guitar, after which Shapiro has an off day, resorting to cliché upon cliché for his solo. Harper almost salvages the cut with inspired work, freewheeling straight out to the walls.
From there, it’s a different story. Horace Silver’s “Nica’s Dream” swings, an intricate aural tapestry. Michelle’s trademark phrasing comes into full play, threading the melody with a natural flow. Harper is uncanny, waxing strong, sweet enough to tempt angels down from heaven. Shapira beautifully cuts loose. In the pocket, Lewis, Nathan and Schmalenberger could tighten the crack of dawn. Michelle closes the cut with her accustomed magic, making it seem so easy to sing wonders.
The timeless “I Remember You” comes on with a vocal-guitar intro that’s everything “West Coast Blues” wasn’t. The matching here is less academically pinpoint, more casually dead-on-the-money. Laid-back to just this side of lazy, it’s a hip, sleepy-blues take these artists can call their own. And, for that matter, one of Charmin Michelle’s most memorable recordings. She’s always been great at what she does but, hands-down, surpasses, this time out. “Caravan” is another standout. Charmin Michelle, Joel Shapira, and Paul Harper all are fantastic, with Lewis and Norman holding the rhythm down, accentuating, subtle to the enth degree.
Don’t be surprised if you find yourself stopping to play this one again. And again. You can, however, go on from there, treating yourself to one of those rare recordings that bring you back to classic jazz.