"It was easy."
You hear comments like that often enough in the music business, after all the work has subsided and the artists can bask in the reflected success of their efforts. But when Chris Anderson offers that assessment, it has a little more significance. Almost nothing comes easy to this blind, crippled pianist: every landscape offers obstacles, except for the unique geography of the keyboard.
Knowing none of this, however, you'd still agree with Anderson's fond memory of his first collaboration with Sabina Sciubba, the German-Italian, multilingual, quietly devastating vocalist. It sounds easy, with no notes forced and not a phrase out of phase. (Several of these tunes have already etched their way onto my personal soundtrack; as I write this, I've spent the last week awaking to Sabina singing "The More I See You" from my inner ear.) And to ask for a better balance of musical elements than these two provide - with Sciubba's lithe tone and linear melodies arrayed against Anderson's batik chords and rococco accompaniments - well, that would just be greedy.
So, whether or not we needed another example of how artistic opposites can attract, we've got one. Chris Anderson in his mid-70s, Sabina Sciubba in her mid-20s: the first a Chicago homebody until he moved to New York in mid-life, the other a jet-setting performer who has already appeared in clubs and theaters, and as a television actress, throughout western Europe. Him, an innovative, influential, and often overlooked pianist, happy to think of himself as accompanist to Her, a clean-voiced, relatively new but widely-praised singer. But they meet at a middle ground they've both trod before.
Sciubba's desire to write her own material (as heard on her previous Naim release, a quite different collaboration with guitarist Antonio Forcione) has led her to a burgeoning pop career; but, she points out, "I started as a jazz singer, in Munich, when I was 17, and then moved away from jazz when I started writing my own music. So this is actually going back to something I know." And Anderson, for his part, has played with vocalists before, in the first part of his career - although he hasn't backed anyone regularly since a short stay with Dinah Washington in 1961. Still, as he comments, "When you do something pretty well, you don't lose your touch for it. You just have to listen, and know where each syllable occurs in the scheme of things - and if the singer wants to move it, to know how it can be moved. You have to know how not to overplay, and sometimes when not to play at all."
You could offer the same advice about singing, of course, but not to Sciubba, who so obviously understands it all despite her tender years. Sciubba's voice wears no makeup, needs no perfume, carries no airs. She sings nakedly, with a clear, crisp presentation: unadorned, her voice doesn't need the various dress-up devices that so many singers use to repackage the rough spots. On this album, she found herself able to emphasize these basics, thanks to the delightful complexities emanating from the keyboard. "Chris's approach to music is almost mystical," Sciubba exults. "He's such a great harmonizer, and singing with him, I got simpler. Usually, when the accompaniment is straighter, just the chords as written, I will improvise more. But Chris, he carries you on a harmonic base. You could just sing one note, and with the chords he plays under it, it keeps changing."
Equally refreshing is the way in which this recording captures Sciubba's voice, as well as every wrinkle of the musicians' gloved-hand collaboration. You won't hear a whitewash of reverb, or packaged "presence," or any other abuse of electronics. The recording engineers, Ken Christianson and Peter Williams, didn't even mix the voice above the piano, preferring to keep these two instruments on an even plane. It's a technique that may first puzzle or even annoy listeners who've grown used to our age's endemic studio manipulation of foreground and background. But within a song or two, the purpose becomes clear. This recording turns the two principals into true co-equals, rather than diva and soloist: the singer's purity of purpose and the pianist's large-eared empathy making it all possible.
You can start just about anywhere. The deceptively dreamy "My Romance" has dynamic rhythms that roll beneath the surface of the tempo, and in the discreet vibrato of Sciubba's voice. On "Polka Dots And Moonbeams," fast and breezy, listen to the subtle yet substantial liberties she takes with the phrasing. "Ain't Misbehavin'," sung with spunk, offers a terrific little piano solo that nods to the 30s while retaining Anderson's own specialties: the stutter-step melodies, the reliance on space, and the artful infusion of trademark riffs and trills (borrowed by Herbie Hancock, Anderson's most famous piano student, in the 1960s) -- all of which fracture the flow of his solos to shift and refocus a listener's attention.
But why not start at the beginning, where Sciubba's lovely, lilting artlessness may well become your own wake-up call? On "The More I See You," Anderson's solo is active, quirky, almost kinky, giving way to a snareless solo by the revivified drums master, Billy Higgins. Sciubba returns with small paraphrases of the original melody that threaten to supplant the original; when she scats the closing chorus, she abandons bebop's frenetics to glide above the chords and across the bar-lines.
Among the things that make "The More I See You" nearly perfect is the tempo, and throughout this album you should note the co-leaders' penchant for finding the right pace, and the best beat, for their material. When you hear "Estate," and it sounds shinier than an over-recorded standard has any right to appear, look to the tempo. Some singers make the song lugubrious - and laborious - to wallow in the lyrics (which explain how hateful summer has become to one who's lost her love); others speed it up and attain a peppy desperation. But this song deals with the dichotomy of sunny exteriors and interior pathos, and the tempo chosen by Sciubba and Anderson - fast enough to feel the samba, slow enough to tell the story - sets a standard for versions to follow.
Successful partnerships grow from specific matters such as these, because they reflect the larger concerns that define the art. As Chris Anderson happily points out, "Music is just a language, and the musical language has to be right. But singing in any language, people's miseries and joys are the same."
Sure. It's easy - once you know how.
Neil Tesser, author of The Playboy Guide to Jazz