By Bobby Reed | Published March 2019
Jazz vocalist Kristen Lee Sergeant opens her sophomore album, Smolder, with a track that nods to the aesthetic on her excellent debut, Inside Out. That 2016 album included jazz arrangements of 1980s pop tunes by The Police, Tears For Fears and Modern English. The new disc opens with a powerful, flute and cello-infused rendition of Spandau Ballet’s 1983 pop hit “True.” This version is a master class in how a jazz singer and arranger like Sergeant can rework a pop tune with different instrumentation, intelligent tempo shifts and vocal lines that ascend and descend in unpredictable, intricate ways.
This is a theme album, with 10 tracks that all have lyrics referring to heat, flame, embers or smoke. Throughout the program, Sergeant’s training as an actress and classical vocalist enable her to craft moments of engaging drama, whether she’s seductively sliding into a note with a near-whisper, delivering a breathy revelation or belting out a lyric with full-throated muscularity. Such skills help add vitality to her renditions of standards such as Cole Porter’s “It’s All Right With Me,” Cy Coleman’s “The Best Is Yet To Come,” Duke Ellington’s “I’m Beginning To See The Light” and Lerner & Loewe’s “Show Me” (from My Fair Lady). In a clever arrangement for an unusual medley, Sergeant mixes sections of “These Foolish Things” into a reading of “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes.” She shows off her compositional chops with the lovely, thematically fitting “Balm/Burn” and “Afterglow,” two gems that are influenced by master tunesmiths, yet sparkle with fine elements of originality. Helping the vocalist ignite the program are Jeb Patton (piano), Cameron Brown (bass), Jay Sawyer (drums), Rogerio Boccato (percussion), Jody Redhage Ferber (cello) and Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra member Ted Nash (alto flute and alto saxophone). This elegant album illustrates what can happen when admirable ambition is paired with vocal vibrancy.