Surprise! Chris Stamey Releases a Lush, Jazz Orchestral/Vocal Double-CD Styled After the Great American Songbook in “New Songs For The 20th Century” (ALBUM REVIEW)

The title should give you pause. These are new songs but for an older time. The inside jacket has the album title emblazoned over a typewriter no less. Chris Stamey built his stellar reputation primarily on infectious power pop and loud rock n’ roll so it’s a bit shocking (unless one is hip to Stamey’s recent work) to discover the “vintage” material contained within these two discs. Stamey explains, “One day in 2015, an old piano arrived at my home, with a bench full of magic songs by Jerome Kern, George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, Henry Mancini, Irving Berlin, Leonard Bernstein….many more. I fell hear-first under their spell, awakening three years later with a long white beard and this collection: 26 songs on two CDs, written and arranged “under the influence,” performed by some of my favorite singers and players.

Stamey, of course, is most widely known as co-founder of the seminal rock band the dBs and more recently as musical director for an international series of concert performances of Big Star’s classic album Third, alongside Big Star’s Jody Stephens, Ray Davies, Kronos Quartet, members of the Posies, R.E. M., Teenage Fanclub, Wilco, and Yo La Tengo. The concert film of these arrangements, Thank You, Friends, was released in March 2017. His jazz radio play about the early ‘60s in Manhattan, Occasional Shivers, premiered on Christmas Day 2016. So, aside from his extensive producer roles, it’s fair to say that Stamey has been in this jazz-like, mid-century music style in recent years. Some of the music from ` is included herein, in remixed, not previously available versions.

Stamey recorded in his home studio in Chapel Hill, NC, having recruited some of the biggest names in jazz as well as some of his trusted friends in the rock and Americana genres. Vocal jazz legend Nnenna Freelon, pop stars Marshall Crenshaw, Don Dixon, Caitlin Cary (Whiskeytown), and North Carolina veterans Skylar Gudasz and Brett Harris join some talented but unfamiliar names in Mike McGuire, Kirsten Lambert, and Faith Jones. The pairings of vocalists with iconic names from jazz, along with Stamey’s pop and Americana sensibilities fused with the canon of the Great American Songbook make for interesting listening and more than a few surprises. For example, Django Haskins (The Old Ceremony) teams with saxophonist Branford Marsalis on the Irving Berlin inspired “Manhattan Melody (That’s My New York).” Emerging pianist Ariel Pocock sings “There’s Not a Cloud in the Sky.” Cary brings her American-like vocal style to “Your Last Forever After.’

Maybe it’s easier to list this huge cast of musicians this way, mainly the ModRec Orchestra, although others such as Nels Cline, Peter Holsapple, and Eric Heywood, 37 musicians in total contribute too. These are the main ones:

The ModRec Orchestra:

Will Campbell (alto & soprano sax)

Dave Finucane, Elijah Freeman, Branford Marsalis (tenor sax)

Matt Douglas (flute, clarinet, bass clarinet, tenor sax)

Bill Frisell, Scott Sawyer, Chris Stamey (guitar)

Stephen Anderson, Jim Crew, Wes Lachot, Julian Lambert, Chris Stamey (piano)

John Brown, Jason Foureman (acoustic bass)

Dan Davis (drums)

Karen Galvin, Katelyn Hammel, Laura Thomas (violin)

Matt Chicurel, Emi Mizobushi, Aubrey Keisel (viola)

Leah Gibson, Josh Starmer (’cello)

Stamey talks about using Mid-Century Modern harmonic and lyrical inflections to evoke an earlier era. “I was intrigued by reimagining those decades right before the Beatles appeared, before President Kennedy was killed, when it seemed like the world was looking around, catching its breath, and wondering what was to come.”  They started with the sheet music Stamey wrote and the soloists (outlined for each track in the detailed booklet) improvised. Then Stamey orchestrated for strings and winds as needed.

The songs from Occasional Shivers, include “Beneath the Underdog” (titled after the Charles Mingus autobiography), “In-tox-i-cho-cli-fi-ca-tion,” “What Is This Music That I Hear?” and McGuire’s standout ballad, “I Am Yours.” And there are even new versions of a few older Stamey tunes that seemed to fit, such as Faith Jones’s powerful “In Spanish Harlem” and Cline’s and Frisell’s dreamscape treatment of “Insomnia.”

Jazz was clearly on Stamey’s mind as he adds, “North Carolina is known internationally as a place Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Nina Simone, and Billy Strayhorn all once called home. But recording this record showed me, without a doubt, that a similar dedication and pursuit of excellence still persists here, today.”

This is a stunning project that will capture the attention of listeners from several genres and from those who bestow awards for such projects. The Great American Songbook, in this case the spirit thereof,  will likely live into the next century too.

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