Nashville-based vocalist Christina Watson keeps plenty of pots on the stove; you may have heard her let loose with the Nashville Jazz Orchestra or jazz quartet 3rd Coast Vocals, or perhaps seen her with the charity-focused Nashville Belles, a group Watson has led since 2008. Multiple endeavors such as these demand versatility, which she’s also displayed on a pair of contemporary jazz-vocal albums on Right Turn Records, the label she and husband Oscar Utterström started a decade ago exclusively for their own releases.
Watson’s recently issued third album, Passage, takes the singer’s stylistic diversity to new levels, presenting a curious assemblage of songs drawn from writer/artists including Sting, Tom Waits, Peter Gabriel, Joni Mitchell and Van Morrison, all of whom have pushed against typically fixed pop/rock boundary lines and, along the way, explored jazz concepts in their work.
Even so, it’s difficult to imagine a dinner party with that idiosyncratic lot seated elbow to elbow; similarly, it can initially prove challenging to assimilate the album’s disparate track sequence and resulting mixture of dark and light moods. Adventurous listeners won’t likely find the task too laborious, though, thanks to the high quality quotient provided by Watson, producer Green Daniels and a gifted small ensemble of primarily jazz-centered players, who deftly walk the line between straight-ahead jazz and artful, high-grade adult-contemporary stylings throughout the 11-track collection.
Locally speaking, it’s a pleasant surprise to find undersung Nashville treasure Buddy Mondlock included among the world-renowned writers represented on Passage; his “Cats of the Coliseum,” based upon his tourist’s-eye-view of Rome, is as rich with imagery and poetic turns as anything else here. One of the disc’s more introspective selections, its understated arrangement benefits from atmospheric pedal steel guitar by My Morning Jacket’s Carl Broemel, one of several smartly-cast guests. Space won’t allow for individual mention of the many fine Nashville-area musicians who appear, though Oscar Utterström merits special note for the creative hand he lent to the entire project as an arranger; on the album’s version of Tom Waits’ “Downtown Train,” Utterström’s scored horn section and his own gradually crescendoing trombone solo bring sophistication and subtlety reminiscent of Aja-era Steely Dan, thanks also to the intuitive rhythm section that anchors this cut and every other, supporting Watson’s every move.
Sting’s “The Pirate’s Bride,” Mitchell’s “A Case of You” and Morrison’s transcendent “Into the Mystic” receive perhaps the most straightforward and linear readings on Passage, departing only minimally from the better-known, definitive originals, other than offering them (minus Mitchell’s already sparsely appointed “Case of You”) in more intimate form. The same technique is used to more alluring effect on Michael McDonald’s Doobie Brothers-era number “There’s a Light,” which, as the album’s quietly engaging opener, provides a kind of philosophical and spiritual mooring for the emotionally vacillating tracks that follow. It also allows Watson to display her natural propensity for R&B-based songs, merely hinting at the simmering vocal performance to come later in the album on an inspired, slightly Latinesque reworking of the 1974 Aretha Franklin hit “Until You Come Back to Me.” Owing to the predominantly subdued quality of the collection, Watson frequently restrains her dynamic capabilities; the relatively few tracks on which she soars summon a desire for a bit more of Watson’s bite elsewhere on the disc, an inadvertent result of the delicate stylistic balancing act that characterizes the album.
The pair of closing tracks, while both down-tempo, reveal Watson at her most emotionally affecting, prompting the suspicion that these hold a more powerful personal connection for the singer than some of the more offbeat choices on Passage. Randy Newman’s “Feels Like Home” is offered in a soothing version that rivals Linda Ronstadt’s for sheer warmth and feeling, accompanied solely by pianist Joe Davidian. While Davidian displays considerable jazz dexterity elsewhere on the disc, here he echoes Watson’s tender soulfulness in a comparatively uncomplicated performance that nonetheless surprises with a rhythmically inventive solo, sidestepping the sentimentality one might expect to hear. The unnamed bonus track at the end is, as Watson explained, a traditional Swedish tune (“Vem Kan Segla,” translated “Who Can Sail”) that she sang to her son, Erik, and learned from her Swedish-born husband. Sung in its native tongue and deeply felt, with a minor-key undercurrent and shadowy overtones, it’s singly compelling.
Fans of contemporary-style jazz vocal who prefer a less experimental approach might look to 2008’s excellent A Flower Truly Blue as an entry point for experiencing the singer’s vitality and verve in fuller measure. Watson’s latest work is rewarding in a different way, and while its ambitions might make it an unfamiliar trek for some listeners, Passage certainly can’t be accused of taking the easy way around.