Veronica Swift Does a Number on Your Grandma’s Classics

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Veronica Swift Does a Number on Your Grandma’s Classics


When Veronica Swift, 27, slips into the comfortably sublime chorus of “The Man I Love” up close and personal, that’s when I fell in love — with her and her new album, This Bitter Earth, out March 19, 2021 on Mack Avenue Records.
If you were born in this Millennium, and you didn’t know better, you wouldn’t know a goddamned thing about the reversal of melodic fortunes of this blessed Gershwin tune, the pop song of its day, circa 1920s. The “Lady, Be Good” musical reject finally appeared in a 1927 government satire, “Strike Up the Band,” was later popularized by Billie Holiday, and embraced by countless young women. Maybe even your mom, when celebrating her golden wedding anniversary by the piano.
As soon as Swift wraps her loving vocals around this one, she’s reeled you in, hook, line, and sinker.
The singer (Confessions) can turn a beguiling phrase from the ancients into an ageless pastime, intimate and new. She can also hit every high and low note on the register, with authority and a depth of aplomb.
“Someday, he’ll come along, the man I love,” oozes romance, if sung correctly.
Throughout her second Mack Avenue record, Swift sings every jazz pastime correctly, personally, and with a clear abandon — snug beside entertainment, escapism, and a little social commentary, completely, utterly embedded in the music and lyrics.
Without excess. Or agenda.
She dares to sing about a woman who views physical abuse as love (Gerry Goffin/Carole King’s “He Hit Me [And It Felt Like A Kiss]”), the casual horror of generational racism (“You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught”), and the ironic sexism of our times, still (“How Lovely To Be A Woman”), borrowing liberally from musical pop culture.
She does so by simply giving the lyrics room to breathe, rather than giving a heavy-handed, guilt-riding lecture.
The child of jazz singer Stephanie Nakasian and jazz pianist Hod O’Brien could never have done this without that voice. She has performed at a very young age and with very talented, known musicians. In 2015, she won second place in the Thelonious Monk International Vocal Competition.
She also gives the all-important band plenty of room to breathe and groove, and they take full advantage, spreading soft and sharp straight-ahead jazz, casual scatting (“You’re The Dangerous Type”) and scales, throughout. The band includes pianist Emmet Cohen, holding down the fort and grounding the proceedings, bassist Yasushi Nakamura, ebullient on his own, take-charge drummer Bryan Carter, silky guitarist Armand Hirsch, and saxophonist/flutist Aaron Johnson.
Usually, singers hog the spotlight, call accompanying musicians “her band,” “her guys,” like she owns them, like they’re an extension of her raging ego etc., etc. Not here. Here, it’s democracy on display, with the vocalist playing an equal role in presenting the whole story, each part informing the whole.
In “You’re The Dangerous Type,” she’s front and center making the lyrics her bitch, scatting up a storm, but she’s also augmenting a smoking jazz section of horns, piano, and bass, illuminating the score.
She doesn’t have to work through notes and pitch, and basic shit like that, freeing her to interpret and convey her own style — lush, sassy, ethereal, and at times, moody, Bjork-like steam-punk, dying to bust loose, knocking down every fucking fourth wall in existence.
On the opening track of Clyde Otis’ 1960 R&B gem, “This Bitter Earth,” you think she’s going all the way into Billie Ellish, break-apart territory, all abstract avant-garde, and yeah, she does the goth-cool thing well, barely stifling that amazing rafter voice melting into trembly-taut strings.
But then she does “Getting To Know You” from “The King & I” proud, matching the Broadway belters, note for note, curvaceously impeccable until you’re quite convinced she could take the stage at any moment. And nobody would be the wiser. She’s at ease in the musical world, easily introducing the lyrical banter of our grandparents into real world problems.
Swift dances around and around the melody, brightening, splurging, beautifying every part that makes this tune what it is.
For the harder covers, Swift avoids the hard sell. Instead, she lets the lyrics in the updated modern jazz do most of the talking, standing on their own for what they really are…no pussyfooting around, no more glam innuendo or Ann-Margret shimmying about, distracting you from the bare, true blue meaning.
Swift and the band leave “How Lovely To Be A Woman” alone, musically. Full of big band glitz and glam. Originally from the 1960 musical “Bye Bye Birdie,” the Charles Strouse/Lee Adams song used to be sung with a wink, a smile, and a hip flounce. In Swift’s cover, Cohen comps all over the place, letting the pearly whites drip like pearls dangling over ivory bodices, in a bluesy-jazz ramp-up — a velvety backdrop for the singer to infuse more nuance in the winks, until it becomes fairly obvious fairy quick.
She raises the bar, pausing in places for full effect, slowing down the rhythm toward the end, as if to say, “How about that?”
“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,” Swift explains. “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.”
Swift said she had a hard time dealing with the Crystals’ 1962 R&B hit, “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss),” a terrible sign of the times. It’s also very hard to get through as a listener, especially if you’ve survived abuse.
They wisely cushion the blow with a gentle guitar serenade, as Swift works her way through the slow realization of what she — and maybe others before her — were singing. The juxtaposition of guitar and vocals makes that realization even more horrific, and impactful.
“This song just makes your stomach curdle. It’s uncomfortable to sing; it’s uncomfortable to listen. But the original version by the Crystals is so the opposite; it’s so indicative of the 1960s victim woman who stays with the man who physically assaults her,” 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.”
In the Latin bent of “Everybody Has The Right To Be Wrong,” the 1965, dunce-liking tune made famous by Frank Sinatra (My Kind Of Broadway) aptly applies to what we’re experiencing currently with the political disconnect. She and the band samba-sashay-shuffle through the Sammy Cahn/Jimmy Van Heusen song with a smile, a start-and-stop rhythm, and a rolling percussive solo that is the absolute bomb.
Something tells me “Prisoner of Love” isn’t easy to sing. For anyone. So many highs and lows and impossible reaches in Russ Columbo/Clarence Gaskill/Leo Robin’s (deceptively) simple, little nothing of a 1931 tune, one Perry Como, The Ink Spots, and James Brown covered. Swift breezes through every one with an intense knowing, making this forgettable, tortuous song something special — her very own. Like those stars from our golden age: Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Judy Garland.
Veronica Swift took a few years to make this 13-track jazz covers album, as she tends to do, sitting with the material a while, and finishing most of it in 2019.
Just in time, I’d say.
“I want this album to have two separate approaches,” she continues. “I wanted to start with women’s place in society now and how it’s changing. During the second half, I wanted to address other ailments in the world, whether it’s racism or fake news. But I don’t take any political stances. I’m very clear with my audience that as an artist I address certain issues as an outsider looking in.”
Artist quotes from a DL Media press release.

Article: Festival Peak