Texas-based vocalist and song stylist Laura Ainsworth has carved a unique niche for herself in the jazz and vintage pop worlds. Over the last 15 years or so, she has released four albums that spotlight her penchant for blending irony, humor, and legit chops with rare nuggets from the Great American Songbook. Her fifth and latest release emerged from her legion of fan requests for classic and more familiar fare. So, while the stunning ginger-haired musician complied with public demand, she still decided to put her own indelible imprint on the proceedings. “Whenever I perform live, fans always request the old, familiar favorites,” states Ainsworth from the album liner notes. “The band and I love performing them, but we felt there were already enough recorded versions. But fans keep asking me to record them, particularly ‘Cry Me a River’ and ‘Over the Rainbow.’ I do love to put a fresh, personal spin on even the most familiar songs. So I decided to do a requests album as a lark.”
The album was produced by long-time keyboardist and music director Brian Piper and Ainsworth. And the combo that is on this disc brings a strong balance of orchestration and improvisation to their approach. Rodney Booth (trumpet, flugelhorn), Chris McGuire (tenor sax), Noel Johnston (guitar), Young Heo (bass), and Steve Barnes (drums) complete the ensemble.
The dozen songs Ainsworth has chosen reflect some of the finest and best loved works from stage and screen. And, on many of these cherished gems, she includes additional verses for the intros and reworks some of the arrangements. Singer Julie London had a hit with “Cry Me a River” in the ‘50s, Joe Cocker revamped the song for the late ‘60s, and Laura Ainsworth revitalizes this classic once again in the modern day. Few singers give this the gravitas and respect it deserves, as the fiery chanteuse delivers on all fronts. It’s an appropriately bluesy and slightly melancholic take, with a straight-ahead jazz feel.
Oscar Hammerstein and Jerome Kern’s “All the Things You Are” follows and gets the first of many personal signatures where Ainsworth sets up the song with a musical recitation. By doing this, not only does she make it uniquely her own, but it further connects with the listener in a profound way. Her vocals flow above a tasty horn chart and Piper’s inspired piano solo.
James Bond and Sean Connery fans will surely get a kick out of the kitschy and samba-like “Goldfinger.” Written by Anthony Newley and popularized in the ‘60s by singer Shirley Bassey, Ainsworth gives it all the sexy charm and cool one would expect. Kudos are bestowed saxophonist McGuire who rallies a smooth combo feel.
“Someone to Watch Over Me” is a tender ballad that features just the right amount of nuance and phrasing to tug at your heartstrings. These kinds of songs are Ainsworth’s calling card.
Guitarist Johnston takes a Barney Kessell/Joe Pass-influenced solo on the relaxed and swinging “Scotch and Soda.” In it, the leader cleverly sells the parallel between the inebriation one gets from alcohol and falling in love. Here’s an example of the way Ainsworth blends humor and lyrical wit, “People don’t believe me, they think that I’m just braggin,’ but I could feel the way I do and still be on the wagon.”
Rodgers and Hart’s “Isn’t it Romantic” is a prime example of a standard that has been performed by countless artists. But, true to form, Ainsworth and Piper add a sweet horn chart, a cha-cha beat and engaging interplay on piano, muted trumpet and sax, respectively.
There are some other noteworthy moments on this album as well, but this reviewer would be remiss if we didn’t make mention of this collection’s finale. “Over the Rainbow” is, undoubtedly, one of Harold Arlen’s most famous compositions and has a timeless mix of fantasy and wonder that has touched generations. Ainsworth and Piper boil this essential piece down to its essence with just voice and piano. And with it, the classic songstress properly delivers a message of hope and dreams to all those that will hear. It’s a very endearing and sincere performance.
Here at the Blog in 2021, Eric Harabadian also reviewed Laura’s previous album, Top Shelf.
This past October, Laura recorded “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” a song she released on December 3rd. You can view a YouTube video of the song here.