Monday, April 21, 2014

Lena Seikaly - Looking Back

Lena Seikaly is one of the Washington DC area’s finest vocalists with the clarity of her singing along, her control of her pitch and vibrato and the instrumental quality of her phrasing and scatting. One could cite a number of influences, and Ella Fitzgerald may be one, but the overall quality of her singing is akin to Roberta Gambarini. Her third, self-priced album Looking Back has her backed by the Chris Grasso Trio (Grasso, piano; Zach Pride, bass; and Lenny Robinson drums), the go to trio to back jazz vocalists in the Nation’s Capital. Also present is the marvelous guitarist Paul Pieper, whose subtle single note solos and chords add to the wonderful accompaniments here.

The eleven songs here take us back to what John Edward Hasse calls the “golden age of American songwriting” (mostly from the twenties and thirties) with emphasis on material recorded by Ethel Waters, Billie Holiday, and Ella Fitzgerald. I am not familiar with I’m Nobody’s Baby, which gets things off on a swinging note, with some scatting, a crisp drum break and wonderful piano. Fascinating Rhythm opens as duet with Pride with her scatting before the full group enters. Her phrasing is such a delight to listen to and Pieper adds a choice solo before she scats in unison with him for a few bars on this delightful performance. Her rendition of Foolin’ Myself suggests Billie Holiday in her phrasing, with the clean, restraint shown by band adding to the performance's feel.

The settings here lend freshness to familiar songs. A duet with guitarist Pieper results in a lovely,  lively Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone, while on the Gerald Marks- Walter Hirsch ballad, Baby, What Else Can I Do, Grasso and Pride provide relaxed backing. Donald Heywood and Will Marion Cook’s collaboration, I’m Coming Virginia, may be better known today from the Frankie Trumbauer- Bix Beiderbecke recording, but  was popularized by Ethel Waters. Seikaly and the trio are a bit more vigorous performing it. It is followed by a moody I Cover The Waterfront. Duke Ellington’s I Love You Madly is a pretty duet with bassist Pride. Pieper’s guitar replaces Grasso’s piano on Guilty, which in addition to Pieper’s sublime playing has Pride taking an arco bass solo while Robinson’s tastefully employs brushes.

Of special interest is Irving Berlin’s Supper Time whose lyrics take the perspective of an African-American wife and mother whose lost her husband to a lynching. Written for Ethel Waters, this has been previously done by Roberta Gambarini with the late Hank Jones on piano. Simply accompanied by Grasso, she straightforwardly sings the lyrics. The simplicity of the performance delivers the stark imagery of Berlin’s lyrics powerfully,

With superb backing, imaginative and varied settings for the songs, Looking Back is another wonderful recording by Lena Seikaly. I have seen Lena Seikaly perform on a number of occasions, and this recording captures  the qualities that make her live performances so marvelous. Her website is, and this CD is available on

I purchased my copy. I should not that I saw her perform this on April 19 at Loew's Madison in Washington backed by Grasso and Pride and she was wonderful as usual. She will be appearing Friday April 25 at a special Jazz Appreciation Month Take 5 program at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art's Kogod Courtyard dedicated to the music of Ella Fitzgerald. The Museum's website says she will be part of a performance by the Bohemian Caverns Jazz Orchestra on a program that will highlight Ella Fitzgerald’s collaborations with big bands, including the Count Basie Orchestra and the Duke Ellington. More information can be found on the Museum's website. Here she performs After You're Gone from her new album.

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