One of the gauges of greatness in the art of vocal jazz is how a singer takes time-honored tunes in unexpected directions. Some do it by adding trendy gimmicks and too often fall on their faces. Karrin Allyson uses the opposite approach on ‘Round Midnight, her thirteenth album in nineteen years, transforming eleven mostly familiar songs — “Sophisticated Lady,” “The Shadow of Your Smile,” and “Send in the Clowns,” among them — into deeply personal odes through her understated, rhythmically and harmonically imaginative arrangements. They’re rendered elegantly by a rhythm section comprising bassist Ed Howard, drummer Matt Wilson, guitarist Rod Fleeman, and Allyson herself on piano, plus studio stalwart Bob Sheppard on a variety of reed and woodwind instruments.
Much like Jimmy Scott, Tony Bennett, and Shirley Horn before her, Allyson is a master of snail-paced tempos. Her alto tones have a warm glow, her phrasing is filled with wondrous surprise, and her clear, conversational enunciation cuts to the core of the lyricists’ intended meanings. In Allyson’s hands, Charlie Chaplin‘s “Smile” becomes an especially poignant anecdote to melancholy. “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most,” a longtime favorite of jazz singers, is taken at a faster clip than usual, shuffling along gently between perfectly placed pauses. And the frequently performed title track is given a particularly sublime reading by just Allyson’s voice and Howard’s bass. (Concord)