Veronica Swift Lays a Jazzy Note To Social Issues On ‘This Bitter Earth (ALBUM REVIEW))

Vocalist and song interpreter Veronica Swift flips the script, following up her 2019 Mack Avenue Records debut, Confessions, with This Bitter Earth, the fourth album overall from the 27-year-old, and one which addresses topical issues and social ills of our times. {Note: She recorded her first album Veronica’s House of Jazz -SNOB, 2004 as a nine-year-old}. Swift tackles sexism [“How Lovely to Be a Woman”], domestic abuse [“He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss)”], racism/xenophobia [“You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught”] and the dangers of fake news [“The Sports Page”]. And, of course, the hauntingly sad opening title track, usually associated with Diane Washington, plays into depression and ultimate redemption. Swift recorded much of the material in 2019, before the coronavirus pandemic created this stay-at-home existence, time she used to connect the songs to different parts of her life. 

Accompanied by a carefully chosen team that includes frequent collaborators pianist Emmet Cohen, guitarist Armand Hirsch, and flutist/saxophonist Aaron Johnson, bassist Yasushi Nakamura, and drummer Bryan Carter, Swift curated material covers multiple genres, including jazz, American musicals, vintage R&B, and contemporary rock. Pianist, composer, and bandleader Steven Feifke conducts on the four songs that he arranged with a four-piece string section and background vocalists. Swift has a light voice, but amazingly pure phrasing given her youth. Keep in mind she has been singing jazz her entire life, so she has command of most of the techniques including scatting, which we hear on Dorough’s “You’re the Dangerous Type”. And she changes it up quite often, deftly moving from infectious fare such as “Getting to Know You” and Prisoner of Love” to bitter sarcasm in “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught” to darker timbres such as on the title track.

Swift gets both dramatic and slyly witty, taking on sexism directly with her unrestrained makeover of “How Lovely to Be a Woman,” a Charles Strouse and Lee Adams tune from the 1960 musical, Bye Bye Birdie. “As I’m coming into the world, having more of a feeling of who I am and being more confident in that, I realize now how this song had a lot more ambiguity and cynicism involved, I tried to make an arrangement that maintained the childlike feel I had while listening to it but still insert some of that sarcasm in it. The song also allows me to present more of my humorous side.”

“You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” also comes from a musical – 1949’s South Pacific. The envelope-pushing, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II-penned song illustrate how racism and xenophobia are learned behaviors, often instilled in children at early ages. In keeping withdrawing much of this material from far more innocent times, Swift focuses directly on the lyrics and purposely devises different moods and musical backdrops. “…I wanted to come up with an arrangement that’s very antsy and mad. So, I put a little bit of that rock beat on the chorus and sing angrily. To me, it sounds like what the song was meant to be.” Themes of abuse appear with Swift’s arresting, tough to absorb cover of the Crystals’ 1962 provocative R&B tune “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss).” Swift says. “…I’ve never heard a version of this song that had gone the other way in terms of making it a somber piece. I wanted to give listeners another option in listening to this song. So, I stripped away all the other instruments and chord progressions and just made it me and guitar. I arranged it to sound almost singer-songwriterly.”

Mixed in with these message songs are such standards as Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Getting to Know You,” the Gershwins’ “The Man I Love” from Porgy and Bess, Robert and Richard Sherman’s “Trust in Me,” and “Prisoner of Love” where her sustained notes at the end are devastating. As she did on her previous album, she includes one from Bob Dorough, “You’re the Dangerous Type,” which is lifted by Johnson’s alto sax and her animated scatting. She returns to current commentary with her version of Dave Frishberg’s socially conscious song “The Sports Page” with Cohen stepping out on a vibrant piano solo.  She uses the song’s topical lyrics to invoke the prevalence of fake news during President Trump’s administration. “The closer, Amanda Palmer’s “Sing” blends strings with guitar rock riffs played by Armand Hirsch before it builds to the exalting climax of voices which include choirs from Charlottesville Virginia’s Stone Robinson Elementary School Choir and Walton Middle School Girls Choir. 

Swift says she conceived the album with two separate approaches starting with women’s place in society now and how it’s changing. In the second half, she wanted to address other ailments in the world such as racism or fake news. Rather than taking a stance, her view is observational but remarkably on point and provocative. 

Since we did not cover her previous deeply personal Confessions more information on this rising talent seems appropriate. At the time of that record, she did an on-air WBGO interview with Michael Bourne for his “Singers Unlimited” program. It wasn’t her first time on the show, either. Years ago, the radio host interviewed her parents, then asked the young prodigy a few questions; she was 10. What did she have to say? “You think I remember?” she joked. “Probably something like, [assuming a little girl’s voice] ‘Hi, I’m 10. I like jazz.’”

Swift adopted her stage name, with her parent’s permission, before her childhood debut album, before that other Swift became famous. Even then she had a sense she would be an artist with her own identity. She doesn’t remember a time when she didn’t listen to jazz. “That was all I was exposed to. Before I was even born, in utero, Mom was doing concerts. I was always hearing bebop … it’s like when you hear your language growing up. There’s a language and vocabulary to the music. I’ve been hearing it before I even could speak. When she was 4 or 5 years old, she was obsessed with Stravinsky and Bach. Her favorite piece of music is the former’s The Rite Of Spring, which Herbie Hancock recently noted as one of his favorites. 

Her current path has, however, had some setbacks and detours. Before coming in second at the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Vocals Competition in 2015 to her contemporary, Jazzmeia Horn, she had been thinking about doing something completely different. It was during this same period in 2013–’14, while studying at the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami, that she went through a rough patch emotionally; she cited the loss of her childhood home in a fire and difficulty adjusting to the demands of college as contributing factors. She dealt with it by taking a semester off to explore goth-rock as both composer and performer, writing an alt-rock opera called Vera Icon about a nun with a dark side. “I did rock ’n’ roll stuff for two years,” she said, “and I felt free and at peace with myself on stage from singing rock ’n’ roll.” In all, she said, she has written three musicals and three screenplays. “I couldn’t be the artist I am today without having sung the rock stuff. I think it gives me that edge. It helped me find my own voice.” 

Indeed, Swift seems to have found that voice already, one already in full bloom that will continue to blossom.

 

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