London-based singer Mark Jennett has released a new CD and he knows and shows that a flame kept low for a slow-burning fire can be more effective than the dramatic, fiery, attention-grabbing vocalizing many prefer. It takes talent and focus to be mellow and yet mesmerizing. Mark takes the tempo and drama in low gear, but never sounds dispassionate or too offhand. With his spare approach, ever open to subtle shifts in emphasis and taking liberties with notes, he is often more the actor-interpreter than the Broadway-beamed grandstander. A quiet confidence informs his stance and phrasing, with vulnerability perhaps cloaked in a jazz man's hip assuredness. While he doesn't use a lot of vocal heft at all, or showiness, there's no doubt of his inherent musicality and grasp of the material. There's a respect implied and an understanding when he and his arranger go into uncharted waters. Jennett and Geoff Gascoyne, the arranger-producer-band member (bass, organ, synthesizer and glockenspiel) have the rare ability of making songs sound in the moment and owned, without the whiff of gimmicks.

The impressive band, which gets some generous-length instrumental time slots on the 14 tracks where vocalist Mark powerfully - sorry, gently—makes his mark quite quickly and comes back for the finish. Keyboardist Rob Barron, trumpeter Martin Shaw, drummer Sebastian de Krom and sax/flute man Andy Panayi make for an ensemble that works well together and separately. Moods set are intensified or expanded with the instrumental breaks that don't feel like "breaks" from the established moods and attitudes. Most tracks are longer than four minutes, so there's a no-rush, no-hurry feel. Plenty of time, but no time to be bored. It's engaging. Even at his cooler jazz turns, there is always something going on, something at stake, when this singer is digging into material. Like his first album, 2009's The Way I Am, this offering has representation by Cole Porter ("Just One of Those Things"), Cy Coleman ("There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This"), Randy Newman ("Simon Smith and His Amazing Dancing Bear") and Rodgers & Hammerstein ("You've Got to Be Carefully Taught").

Purists who don't like their show tunes and contexts shaken up much may raise eyebrows and even bristle when all musical shackles are shorn. Gypsy's "Some People" has more grit than unbridled rage and bravura. He includes discarded sections found in Sondheim's book of lyrics, "Finishing the Hat," like "Some people can sit around, under glass 'til they're underground." It may not be the clear-eyed 100% determination we think of with this number, but the judgments and rejecting of expectations are there in spades. And I pick up some sad worry that adds its own drama. Somewhat similarly, Sweet Charity's "There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This" rebellion is strengthened by its weakness—maybe this is as good as it gets, will he succeed and find something better? Mark won't go down without a fight. "Hurry! It's Lovely Up Here" from On a Clear Day You Can See Forever becomes surprisingly hip. And while it may seem sacrilegious to scat-sing during "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught," South Pacific's specifically intense philosophizing about prejudice, there's still some attitude in there that kind of works. Certainly this album is full of surprises.

Pop songs suit Jennett as well. Sung back to back, Bacharach/David '60s items avoid the trap of the seductive melodies hijacking the meaning of the words: "Are You There (with Another Boy [Girl])" shows some insecurities and sorrows and the tainted-as-male-chauvinist "Wives and Lovers" led to a lengthy disclaimer and theorizing on his website. I miss some of the expected light playfulness in Randy Newman's quirky "Simon Smith and His Dancing Bear," but I enjoy the clarity and ease of the vocals and like hearing bass and piano exploring it.  Atypically sustained notes on the final word of the lyric here and on "On Slow Boat to China" (Frank Loesser) show that the guy has more vocal power than his clipped style betrayed.  The "Boat" ride is choppier and more assertively rhythmic than I'd want for the loneliness and insecurity this number can have in a more mature setting.  But its details and embellishments somewhat make up for the bulk of the treatment being less sympathetic.  However, Paul Simon's "Train in the Distance" captures a bittersweet pensiveness that makes it an album highlight.

Clearly Mark Jennett is not a cookie-cutter vocalist. With eclectic material, he still makes it all sound like he's living in the skin of each song. And he has that very rare ability to make a song you know by heart still touch your heart and seem to reveal new facets in a new light.


Rob Lester

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