Allegra Levy is a refreshing talent to enter the jazz scene. Her debut release, Lonely City (Steeple Chase Productions, 2014), departs from the usual fare offered by up and coming vocalists. Rather than revisit standards from the American Songbook category of oldies that have been remade to infinity, Levy composed music and lyrics to all 11 tracks.
The core band consists of Adam Kolker, tenor sax; John Bailey, trumpet; Carmen Staaf, piano; Jorge Roeder, bass; and Richie Barshay, drums and percussion. Guest musicians are Steve Cardenas, guitar on “Anxiety”; Lolly Bienenfield, trombone on “I Don’t Want to Be in Love”; Mark Feldman, violin on “Everything Green” and “Clear-Eyed Tango”; Andy Green, guitar, and Aubrey Johnson, vocal, on “Lonely City”; and Fung Chern Hwei, violin, Victor Lowrie, viola, and Mariel Roberts, cello, on “The Duet.”
“Anxiety” opens the set. It has a moderate, low-swing groove. Levy sings of an emotion she wishes would leave her, make her stop worrying about a relationship. Her voice is soothing, despite the lyrics of unease. All the musicians on this track have significant impact, even those who are mostly background. Kolker, Staaf and Cardenas stand out.
“A New Face” is a bright, delightful song. The whimsical lyrics speak of a woman who goes through the daily ritual of applying makeup, plucking eyebrows and, if you can imagine, getting rid of unwanted hairs, only to spend the night alone. With Staaf, Roeder and Barshay mixing it up underneath, Bailey’s sunny solo could mislead one into believing this to be a happy song. That mood doesn’t change when Kolker joins in for a bouncy, horn duet.
The title song is a mellow, easygoing piece. Like several songs, the lyrics are sad. Yet the music is charming, even romantic. The piano contributes heavily to this vibe. During the climactic interlude, Levy drops to a lower range, complemented by Green’s fills.
Levy was 24 at the time of the album’s release. She draws inspiration from Carmen McCrae and Betty Carter, jazz singers who were comfortable in the lower register, as well as composers Richard Rodgers, Jule Styne and Henry Mancini. Levy spent a seven-month residency at the Four Seasons Hotel in Hong Kong, made her international debut at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2008 and has since performed in New York and New England clubs, including Tomi Jazz, The Flatiron Room and Black-Eyed Sally’s.
Trumpeter John McNeil produced Lonely City and arranged several tracks. Three arrangements are by Staaf. But the fact that Levy chose to create all-original material for her recording debut says a lot about her determination to be herself while giving audiences both a fresh voice and something new for that voice to deliver