Judy Wexler Goes Back to the Garden


Judy Wexler

(Photo: Mikel Healey Photography)

Inspiration can come from unlikely sources. When COVID forced the shutdown of live performances, Judy Wexler decided to change her approach to a production she was creating.

“A few years ago, I started reimagining the protest songs of the ’60s and early ’70s as jazz tunes,” Wexler said, from her home in Glendale, California. “Most of them were originally in the pop, rock or folk realms. They were written in a time of great social change, during the rise of feminism, anti-war activism and racial reckoning. I recorded ‘Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright’ on my first album, Easy On The Heart, in 2005.”

Wexler came up with the idea of singing a whole evening of reinvented songs from the ’60s a few years ago. The first iteration of the show, Talking’ About My Generation, took place in 2010, with backup singers augmenting her piano, bass and drums trio. She did a similar show in 2016, called Back To The Garden.

“I was working on another iteration last year,” she said. “I had commissioned quite a few arrangements of songs from the period. When all performances were canceled, I decided to make a record. Since Trump was still president, I was going to call it Back To The Garden and subtitle it Songs Of Love, Hope And Resistance. As soon as Biden was elected, I changed it to Love, Hope And Change.

“I contacted my long-time pianist and arranger, Jeff Colella, in June of 2020. I wasn’t sure what was going on with the pandemic, but once I decided to make a recording, we started working on it. I went to his house. We both wore masks. I was 12 feet away from the piano, singing at other end of the living room. We did that for a bit, working out arrangements. Most of them were already done, but some needed fleshing out. He added a string quartet to ‘Since You’ve Asked Me’ and a cello part for ‘The Times They Are a-Changing.’ He also wrote a string trio section for ‘American Tune’ and a trumpet part for ‘Who Knows Where The Time Goes,’ both arranged by pianist Josh Nelson.

“In the studio, I made decisions about cutting things out or adding to the arrangements. I had control. The instrumental parts were recorded safely, but there were some issues with players asking, ‘What’s the ventilation like?’ or ‘Are we gonna be separated?’ I told them, ‘If you don’t feel comfortable, don’t do it.’ Everyone was in isolation booths. We washed hands constantly. Most folks were so hungry to play and hang out, I had to kick them out eventually, so I could get the time I needed to finish the production.”

Love, Hope And Change includes familiar titles like “For What It’s Worth,” “Get Together” and “Big Yellow Taxi.” Wexler’s imaginative phrasing and ornamentations are complemented by Colella’s arrangements. The album was released on Wexler’s Jewel City Jazz label.

“A few years ago, I decided I wanted my own label. I thought I’d get more of the sales money, if I did it myself and put it up on CD Baby and streaming sites. I was right. I sold all my copies of my last album, Crowded Heart, and I could track the sales, downloads and money from streams to the countries it was coming from. People from various parts of the world were buying the CD, physical as well as downloads. This time, instead of distributing through CD Baby, I got a distributer, A Train Entertainment, in Oakland, California.

“I’m pleased with the way the album came out. It gives you a feel for what the music meant to the people of that generation. There’s a feeling of hope in many of the lyrics that’s still relevant today. When I recorded ‘American Tune,’ I was thinking how much the lyrics still resonate. The first time I recorded the vocals, I sounded so sad, I had to throw the take out and sing it more matter of factly, to let the lyrics speak for themselves.” DB

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