Jazz singers are usually appraised by instrumental criteria like timbre, phrasing, dynamics, range and swing, rather than the lyrical content of their songs. That's because so many of the genre's finest vocalists — Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Diana Krall — are song interpreters rather than songwriters, tilling the fertile catalogs of George and Ira Gershwin, Billy Strayhorn and others. But Nashville's Dara Tucker is an exception whose message and medium demand attention.
"I moved to Nashville in 2004 to pursue songwriting," explains Tucker, whose third album The Sun Season is out now. "My intention was to write country-friendly songs with some jazz and light R&B in them." Instead she's amassed a catalog that's propelled her onto the stage and into a solo career playing such prestigious jazz rooms as New York City's Blue Note and Smoke, New Orleans' Snug Harbor, Boston's Sculler's and various festivals.
The Sun Season, which features 10 of Tucker's own tunes, is a savvy blend of the traditional and the contemporary, with the native Oklahoman using her sweet, breathy voice to deliver her lyrics with precisely enunciated, sailing horn-like phrases that echo the elegance of Ella, albeit in a gentler fashion. Thanks to her Nashville writer's ambitions, Tucker's songs are strong on melody and grooves, which gives her crack studio band license to liberally cross the lines of jazz, pop and R&B. They even find room for small excursions into abstraction, mostly via Peter Bernstein's guitar and Helen Sung's piano.
Bernstein is virtually a second vocalist on the elegant, breezy "Time Is on Our Side," and Sung, in particular, plays a heroic role. One donor to the album's fundraising campaign got to choose a standard for the disc and picked "Over the Rainbow." "Greg and I cringed," Tucker says. But the duet performance is elevated by Sung's unpredictable minor-key expansions and dark melodic underpinnings, along with glorious flourishes of classicism, and the way Tucker revels in the number's pure melodic grace.
Despite the presence of "Rainbow," the album is every bit the sunny affair that its name promises. Five songs have "sun" in their title, and even more reference the fiery orb. Plus every number on the album is either glowingly positive or has — like "Giant," an ode to overcoming life's challenges — a silver lining.
"I want performances to uplift people," Tucker explains. "I grew up singing in the church. My father was a minister and my mother was a singer, and in church what you hear is, 'We want you to leave better than when you came.' "
The sun has been a recurring character in Tucker's writing for a decade, so finding the new album's theme in her unrecorded catalog came naturally. "When I first started writing songs, they were a bit more melancholy," she says, "but at one point I was outside writing in the sun and realized that its life-giving force has always been an inspiration to me.
"I also realized years ago that how you express yourself in the songs you write is a conscious decision. I enjoy writing about romance and sunshine and good feelings, and I've been lucky to not have much experience with heartbreak. So that's helped me to avoid being jaded and helps keep performing my songs onstage a spiritual experience for me — something that goes beyond the melody and the lyrics. When I share my joy with the audience, they feel it and really can leave feeling uplifted."
This year, Tucker's been depending on the sun for some uplift herself. "My father passed away, and it's been a really rough time," she says, "but it's also been a learning experience for me. You don't have to dwell in darkness; it's a decision. The sun is the place where joy and love reside. If we let that light speak to us, we can survive anything."
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